Anxiety is a normal reaction to stress that everyone experiences at times. It might be those butterflies before a job interview, or worries about finances. The specific effects of anxiety vary from person to person, but the degree of anxiety you experience influences the way you think, feel and act.
Anxiety is an automatic response to anything you perceive as a threat. This automatic response is often known as a “fight-or-flight response,” and it allows you to protect yourself from anything that could harm your health and well-being.
Anxiety may make you fearful, tense or jumpy, and it may eclipse logic. For example, if you have a phobia of flying, you might understand that your thoughts are irrational, but you just can’t shake the idea that something bad will happen if you take the chance and board your flight. Anxiety can alter your behavior, too. You might avoid situations like public places or heights that have tended to trigger anxiety and panic in the past.
However, anxiety disorders are much different than simply feeling anxious. They can cause distress that’s crippling and interferes with your ability to lead a normal life.
Types of anxiety disorders
There are several types of anxiety disorders, including:
- Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). This condition is one in which you might feel more than the normal anxiety you experience on a day-to-day basis. GAD involves excessive, unrealistic worry and tension, even if there is little or nothing to provoke your anxiety. You may often have difficulty falling and staying asleep. Your worries might be accompanied by physical ailments like lightheadedness, muscle tension, headaches and profuse sweating, as well as emotional changes like heightened emotions or increased irritability.
- Panic disorder. If you have this disorder, you may experience sudden, repeated feelings of terror that occur without warning, known as panic attacks. Other symptoms can include profuse sweating, chest pain, strong irregular heartbeats and feelings of choking. These panic attacks occur randomly. You may develop intense anxiety between episodes, even worrying when and where the next attack will happen.
- Social anxiety disorder (social phobia). This condition involves overwhelming worry and self-consciousness about everyday social situations. You may often worry about embarrassing yourself in front of others, or being judged by others. Common symptoms of this disorder include sweating, strong irregular heartbeats, tremors, gastrointestinal discomfort or muscle tension.
- Specific phobias. A specific phobia is an intense fear of a particular object or situation like snakes, heights or flying. The level of fear is usually extreme for the circumstances, and it may cause you to avoid common, everyday situations.
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). It’s common to double checks things from time to time like whether you locked the door or turned the stove off. But you might have OCD if you have persistent thoughts and fears (obsessions) that lead you to perform repetitive behaviors (compulsions) and prevent you from enjoying your daily activities. It is possible to experience one without the other – just obsessions or just compulsions. You may often feel driven to perform compulsive acts in an effort to ease your stress, which leads to more ritualistic behavior – a cycle that’s characteristic of OCD.
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD can develop after you have experienced, or witnessed, a traumatic event that caused you to feel intense fear, stress or anxiety. For most, these feelings disappear over time. But if these feelings continue for a month or more, worsen over time and negatively affect your daily life, you may have PTSD.
What are the symptoms of anxiety?
Symptoms vary greatly depending on the type of anxiety disorder. If any of these symptoms prevent you from completing daily tasks, it may be time to see professional help:
- Feelings of panic, fear and uneasiness
- Difficulty falling asleep, or staying asleep
- Cold or sweaty hands and/or feet
- Shortness of breath
- Heart palpitations
- Dry mouth
- Muscle tension
What causes anxiety?
The exact cause of anxiety and anxiety disorders is unknown. However, anxiety disorders are not the result of a personal weakness, character flaw or poor upbringing. Continued research suggests that many of these disorders are caused by several factors, including:
- Environmental stressors like:
- Medical factors such as:
- Stress from a serious medical illness like asthma or heart disease
- Symptoms from a medical illness
- Side effects of medication
- Lack of oxygen from emphysema or a blood clot in the lungs
- Substance abuse. It’s estimated that about half of patients who seek mental health services for anxiety disorders do so because of alcohol or drug dependency. Generally, anxiety is known to result from intoxication, or withdrawal, from an illicit drug.
- Brain chemistry. Research shows that people with abnormal levels of certain neurotransmitters in the brain are more likely to suffer from general anxiety disorder. When neurotransmitters aren’t working properly, the brain’s internal communication network breaks down. This may cause the brain to react inappropriately in some situations, leading to anxiety.
- Genetics. A family history of anxiety can increase the likelihood that you’ll develop an anxiety-related disorder. That is, you may have a genetic predisposition to anxiety, which gives you a greater chance of suffering from anxiety disorders.
How do you treat anxiety?
It’s important to have strategies in place to help you cope with your anxiety. These strategies can help soothe anxiety mentally and physically by training your mind and relaxing your body.
Here are a few things you can try:
- Practice deep breathing. Deep, mindful breathing can result in a sense of relaxation. Natural breathing involves your diaphragm, a large muscle in your abdomen. When you breathe in, your stomach should expand. When you breathe out, your stomach should get smaller. Over time, people forget how to breathe this way and use their shoulders and chest instead. This causes short, shallow breaths, which can increase stress and anxiety.
- Use progressive muscle relaxation. It’s not as complex as it sounds. Simply focus on alternating between tensing and relaxing different muscle groups throughout your body. In this way, relaxation is viewed like pendulum. Additionally, by tensing your muscles – a common symptom of anxiety – and immediately relaxing them, the symptom of muscle tension may become a signal to relax over time.
- Make mindfulness a habit. Using mindfulness to cope with anxiety can be very helpful. Mindfulness is all about being in touch with, and aware of, the present moment. Find a comfortable position in a comfortable environment and close your eyes. Focus your attention on your deep breathing, and pay attention to what it feels like to breathe in and out using your diaphragm. Anytime you notice your mind has wandered away from your breathing, simply identify what took your attention away, then bring your attention back to the present moment. Continue this as long as you like.
- Reach out to trusted family and friends. Research consistently finds that receiving support from loved ones can help you overcome stress and anxiety. Having someone you trust, and whom you can talk to, can assist you in working through stressful situations and validate your emotions. Your loved ones can also offer support, whether it’s a shoulder to cry on, or a joke to boost your mood.
- Write it down. Using journaling to cope with, and express, your thoughts and feelings can be an effective way to manage your anxiety. It’s been found to improve your physical and psychological health. Simply dedicate 20 minutes each day to writing down your deepest thoughts, feelings and worries. Then, read over what you wrote and pay attention to how you feel. Write about the same few topics several days in a row – this can help you organize and improve the clarity of your thoughts and feelings.
- Distract yourself. Purposeful use of distraction can help you cope with anxiety. Sometimes, focusing on a strong emotion can make it feel even stronger and more out of control. But, buy distracting yourself, you may give the emotion some time to decrease in intensity, making it easier to manage. You can distract yourself by talking a walk, counting backward from 100, reading a book, doing household chores or focusing on your environment by naming all the colors in the room.