Anxiety disorders are one of the most commonly diagnosed of all mental illnesses, affecting millions of people throughout the world. While anxiety is something that everyone experiences at various points within their lives, there are some individuals who experience it at such an intense level that it causes significant disruption in their ability to function. Characterized in different forms and by differing levels of severity, anxiety disorders can include: generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, social anxiety disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, panic disorder, and specific phobias. Some may experience one type of these disorders, while others may experience overlapping symptoms of various anxiety disorders.
The specific type of anxiety that a person is suffering from, as well as the support system that the individual has available to him or her, will ultimately impact the level of dysfunction that the disorder has on the person’s life. Anxiety disorders can lead to the development of serious problems in school, at work, at home, and within one’s interpersonal relationships.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, an estimated 40 million adults over the age of 18 are believed to suffer from some type of anxiety disorder. However, anxiety disorders do not only affect adults as The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have reported that approximately 1.8 million children under the age of 18 are struggling with an anxiety disorder and additional research has shown that nearly 10% of children suffer from specific phobias.
Causes and Risk Factors of Anxiety
There are a variety of causes and risk factors that can play a role in determining a person’s susceptibility to experiencing anxiety. Many researchers believe that a combination of genetic, physical, and environmental factors work together in either increasing or decreasing an individual’s risk of developing anxiety.
Genetic: A person’s genetic makeup plays a significant role in shaping his or her individual personality and temperament, which greatly affects how a person responds to and copes with stress. The way in which an individual is able to manage his or her levels of stress can make them either more or less susceptible to developing an anxiety disorder.
Physical: The presence of anxiety is believed to be due, in part, to a chemical imbalance in the brain. When neurotransmitters, which are the chemicals designed to send messages throughout the brain, experience this type of imbalance they become incapable of appropriately transmitting certain messages, which ultimately results in the onset of anxiety.
Environmental: Spending time within highly stressful environments can have a major impact on the development of anxiety. For example, if someone works in a very demanding career and does not have the skills necessary to successfully manage the stress that the career induces may ultimately end up suffering from an anxiety disorder.
- Spending a significant amount of time in highly stressful environments
- Lack of social and family support
- Experiencing a traumatic event
- Poor living conditions
- Familial discord
- Exposure to violence
- Family history of mental illness
- Personal history of mental illness
- Being the victim of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse
Signs and Symptoms of Anxiety
The signs and symptoms of anxiety disorders will present differently depending on the type of anxiety disorder that the person is suffering from. The following are various examples of symptoms that may be displayed by an individual who is struggling with some type of anxiety disorder:
- Heightened startle response
- Repetitive speaking
- Performing ritualistic behaviors
- Refusing to or incapable of fulfilling obligations
- Avoidance of certain people, places, or situations
- Chronic headaches
- Muscle tension
- Dizzy episodes
- Changes in sleeping and/or eating patterns
- Excessive sweating
- Increased heart rate
- Rapid breathing
- Stomach problems
- Flight of ideas
- Racing thoughts
- Memory impairment
- Extreme difficulty concentrating
- Lacking the ability to make decisions
- Obtrusive compulsions
- Repetitive thinking
- Pervasive feelings of nervousness
- Emotional detachment
- Dramatic, sudden mood changes
- Overwhelming, inexplicable feelings of guilt
Effects of Anxiety
While anxiety disorders can be successfully treated, there are many individuals who do not seek treatment for their symptoms. When the disorder continues to be left untreated, the long-term effects can have a negative impact on the lives of those suffering from it. Examples of some such effects may include:
- Academic or occupational failure
- Social isolation
- Deterioration of strong interpersonal relationships
- Substance abuse
- Suicidal thoughts and behaviors
People who suffer from an anxiety disorder often meet criteria for another mental illness as well. The most commonly noted mental disorders known to co-occur with an anxiety disorder include:
- Other anxiety disorders
- Bipolar disorder
- Posttraumatic stress disorder
- Depressive disorders
- Eating disorders
- Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder