Fear and anxiety in our life
Fear and anxiety are a normal--even essential--part of life. They prepare us for danger, creating physiological changes that enable us to effectively respond to a threat. Fear is very straightforward. It arises in response to immediate danger, so it is usually unexpected, very intense, and limited to the situation at hand. Your response to the fear, such as jumping out of the path of an oncoming car, quickly resolves the situation.
While both fear and anxiety can provoke an arousal response, their other effects diverge. Very intense fear sometimes serves to "freeze" the body to protect it from harm, causing little or no change in heart rate and blocking the impulse to move. In anxiety, the physical changes caused by arousal lead to a second stage marked by thought patterns such as worry, dread, and mental replays of anxiety-arousing events.
As long as there's a good reason for fear or anxiety, and it doesn't interfere with the ability to work, play, and socialize, it is not considered a problem. But when anxiety takes on a life of its own and begins to disrupt everyday activities, the situation is no longer normal. A genuine emotional disorder is now at work... and it's time to see a doctor.
Effective treatments for anxiety disorders are available, and research is yielding new, improved therapies that can help most people with anxiety disorders lead productive, fulfilling lives. If you think you have an anxiety disorder, you should seek information and treatment.
Learn anxiety disorders
Anxiety disorders are surprisingly frequent, and affect more Americans than does any other emotional disorder. They are more common than depression, manic depression, or abuse of alcohol and other substances. According to the American Psychiatric Association, while depressive disorders affect one person in 20, one in 12 suffers an anxiety disorder. Because consumers and doctors alike are less attuned to anxiety disorders than other emotional problems, these disorders often go unrecognized. This is unfortunate, because most cases of anxiety can be treated successfully. In fact, anxiety disorders are considered the most treatable of all emotional problems.
Each anxiety disorder has its own distinct features, but they are all bound together by the common theme of excessive, irrational fear and dread.
Learn symptoms of anxiety disorders
Not everyone who is depressed has all depression's symptoms, but everyone who is depressed has at least some of them, co-existing, on most days. Depression can range in intensity from mild to severe. Depression can co-occur with other medical disorders such as cancer, heart disease, stroke, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, and diabetes. In such cases, the depression is often overlooked and is not treated. If the depression is recognized and treated, a person's quality of life can be greatly improved.
Physical symptoms of this disorder include: trembling, twitching, muscle tension, headaches, irritability, sweating, nausea, hot flashes, light-headedness, and difficulty breathing. GAD is diagnosed when psychological and physical symptoms of anxiety last more than a month and are not accompanied by the symptoms of other anxiety disorders.
If you have been excessively worried about a number of everyday problems for at least six months and have at least six of the common symptoms of anxiety listed earlier, you may have generalized anxiety disorder. Check with your family physician or mental- health professional. Generalized anxiety disorder is highly treatable.
The many causes of anxiety
There's little doubt that all our thoughts and feelings are rooted in transmissions between nerve cells in the brain. These signals are passed from cell to cell by chemical neurotransmitters released at the synapse (tiny gap) between one cell and the next.
An imbalance in these neurotransmitters can cause a corresponding shift in our thoughts. But is the reverse also true? Can a determined change in our thinking alter the chemistry in the brain? Many experts are convinced this is true; and behavioral therapy aimed at changing our reactions does, in fact, cure many problems. Indeed, for some disorders, such as phobias, this type of therapy remains the most effective alternative.
1. Remember that though your feelings and symptoms are very frightening, they are not dangerous or harmful.
2. Understand that what you are experiencing is an exaggeration of your normal bodily reactions to stress.
3. Do not fight your feelings or try to wish them away. The more you are willing to face them, the less intense they will become.
4. Do not add to your panic by thinking about what "might" happen.
5. Stay in the present. Notice what is really happening to you as opposed to what you think might happen.
6. Label your fear level from zero to 10 and watch it go up and down. Notice that it does not stay at a very high level for more than a few seconds.
7. When the fear begins to trigger "what if" thinking, focus on and carry out a simple and manageable task such as counting backwards from 100 by threes or snapping a rubber band on your wrist.
8. Notice that when you stop adding frightening thoughts to your fear, it begins to fade.
9. When the fear comes, expect and accept it. Wait and give it time to pass without running away from it.
10. Be proud of the progress you make, and think about how good you will feel when you succeed this time.
Studies examine worries
Many organizations today supports research into the causes, diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of anxiety disorders and other mental illnesses. Studies examine the genetic and environmental risks for major anxiety disorders, their course--both alone and when they occur along with other diseases such as depression--and their treatment. The ultimate goal is to be able to cure, and perhaps even to prevent, anxiety disorders.
By learning more about brain circuitry involved in fear and anxiety, scientists may be able to devise new and more specific treatments for anxiety disorders. For example, it someday may be possible to increase the influence of the thinking parts of the brain on the amygdala, thus placing the fear and anxiety response under conscious control.
Scientists are also conducting clinical trials to find the most effective ways of treating anxiety disorders. For example, one trial is examining how well medication and behavioral therapies work together and separately in the treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Another trial is assessing the safety and efficacy of medication treatments for anxiety disorders in children and adolescents with co-occurring attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. For more information about clinical trials, for example the National Library of Medicine's clinical trials database.
Treatment of anxiety disorders
Effective treatments for each of the anxiety disorders have been developed through research. In general, two types of treatment are available for an anxiety disorder--medication and specific types of psychotherapy (sometimes called "talk therapy"). Both approaches can be effective for most disorders. The choice of one or the other, or both, depends on the patient's and the doctor's preference, and also on the particular anxiety disorder. For example, only psychotherapy has been found effective for specific phobias. When choosing a therapist, you should find out whether medications will be available if needed.
Before treatment can begin, the doctor must conduct a careful diagnostic evaluation to determine whether your symptoms are due to an anxiety disorder, which anxiety disorder(s) you may have, and what coexisting conditions may be present. Anxiety disorders are not all treated the same, and it is important to determine the specific problem before embarking on a course of treatment. Sometimes alcoholism or some other coexisting condition will have such an impact that it is necessary to treat it at the same time or before treating the anxiety disorder.
Pharmacy for anxiety disorders
Psychopharmacology, the treatment of psychiatric disorders and emotional distress with medication, has developed over the last fifty years, as our understanding of the workings of the brain has increased in sophistication. When medication is prescribed for mental and emotional illness, the most frequent goal is to restore the chemical balance within the brain, thereby restoring equilibrium to the entire system. Certain drugs function to address certain symptoms, such as when sedatives are prescribed for insomnia. Medications can work to slow disease processes, such as when anti-oxidants are used to treat Alzheimer's. Still other drugs control cravings and curb other problematic behaviors, such as taken to control alcoholism.
Medication is most helpful when there is clear disorder or, sometimes, a specific target symptom for a particular drug. Usually, a pattern of symptoms point to a specific chemical imbalance. Whenever an imbalance appears evident through a person's disordered behavior and emotional state, medication centers on modifying the strength of the signal or readjusting the balance among them.
Help for anxiety disorders
Remember, though, that when you find a health care professional that you're satisfied with, the two of you are working together as a team. Together you will be able to develop a plan to treat your anxiety disorder that may involve medications, cognitive-behavioral or other talk therapy, or both, as appropriate.
You may be concerned about paying for treatment for an anxiety disorder. If you belong to a Health Maintenance Organization or have some other kind of health insurance, the costs of your treatment may be fully or partially covered. There are also public mental health centers that charge people according to how much they are able to pay. If you are on public assistance, you may be able to get care through your state Medicaid plan.
Terms and definitions
- A state of uneasiness and apprehension, as about future uncertainties.
- Worry or tension in response to real or imagined stress, danger, or dreaded situations. Physical reactions such as fast pulse, sweating, trembling, fatigue, and weakness may accompany anxiety.
- A psychiatric disorder involving the presence of anxiety that is so intense or so frequently present that it causes difficulty or distress for the individual.
- Any of various disorders in which anxiety is either the primary disturbance or is the result of confronting a feared situation or object; they include obsessive-compulsive disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder.
- Fear is an unpleasant feeling of perceived risk or danger, whether it be real or imagined.
- In psychiatry, a symptom of mood disorder characterized by intense feelings of loss, sadness, hopelessness, failure, and rejection.
- A state of emotional and psychological well-being in which an individual is able to use his or her cognitive and emotional capabilities, function in society, and meet the ordinary demands of everyday life.
- The psychological state of someone who is functioning at a satisfactory level of emotional and behavioral adjustment.
- A state of extreme difficulty, pressure, or strain.
- A physical and psychological response that results from being exposed to a demand or pressure.