By Shelby Deering
Why is my heart racing? What’s wrong with me? Why are my palms sweating? Am I ever going to be OK?
These might seem like alarming, or even dire, questions. But for the person with an anxiety disorder, questions like these move through the brain as quickly and frequently as cars on a well-traveled highway.
We all worry. We wrestle with the thought that perhaps a door was left unlocked or an appliance left on after leaving the house. We wring our hands over our children’s grades. Work may continually course through a troubled mind.
But there is a distinct difference between run-of-the-mill worry and a state of being that can be classified as an anxiety disorder.
Anxiety is more common than you may think and has become especially prevalent in today’s always-connected, faster-than-the- speed-of-Facebook world. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 19% of adults in the United States have dealt with an anxiety disorder in the past year.
Anxiety is more widespread among women — they experience it twice as often as men — which could be due to hormone imbalances or women’s tendencies to be more open with their feelings. An estimated 31% of U.S. adults will face anxiety at some point in their lives.
Adults aren’t the only ones with anxiety. Around 32% of adolescents have had an anxiety disorder.
If you feel that your worries and racing thoughts have begun to interfere with your life, it might be time to seek help and a diagnosis for a potential anxiety disorder.
THE MANY FACES OF ANXIETY
Anxiety is far from a universal condition. According to the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” (DSM–5), there are nine mental disorders that can be classified as anxiety disorders. They can range from generalized anxiety disorder to separation anxiety to social anxiety, and they all follow similar, yet very different patterns of symptoms. The level of severity can vary from person to person as well.
“Mental health disorders are not diagnosed based on a ‘feel’ a healthcare provider gets about what disorder a person may have,” says Erri Hewitt, PhD, Assistant Professor, Clinical Track, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Psychiatry. “Rather, diagnoses are based on very specific clusters of symptoms people have to have in order to get an anxiety disorder diagnosis.”
Hewitt provides a broader definition of anxiety, saying, “Anxiety disorders are common conditions that cause significant distress and dysfunction. They are generally characterized by excessive or irrational fear or worry.”
Joseph Fairbanks, MS, LPC, NCC, an Outpatient Lead Psychotherapist at Elkhorn’s Aurora Behavioral Health Center, shares the standard symptoms of anxiety. He says that these can include worry, restlessness, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, irritability, muscle tension, sleep disturbances, distress and the inability to function.
He says, “Generally, the body reacts to anxiety — or induces anxiety at times — through rapid heart rate, racing thoughts, sweating, tense muscles and quick, shallow breathing.”
Fairbanks recommends seeking treatment when the symptoms hinder your ability to function at home, in the community or at work.
A MYRIAD OF CAUSES
The sources of anxiety can be varied. Although Fairbanks says it’s not uncommon for anxiety disorders to “run in the family,” they can also be caused by health conditions. He lists thyroid issues, heart problems, diabetes, COPD and asthma as potential anxiety triggers. Anxiety can also be a byproduct of other mental health conditions, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and Depression.
The National Institute of Mental Health lists environmental factors that can contribute to anxiety in adulthood. They include temperamental traits, shyness, and stressful or negative life events experienced during childhood.
Anxiety can be generated by several outside causes as well. Hewitt explains, “Some substances can cause anxiety while they are being taken, while others cause anxiety when people withdraw from them.” Caffeine, alcohol and certain medications, such as specific asthma medications, steroids, thyroid medications, stimulants and decongestants, can lead to anxious feelings.
Lastly, a fast-paced, continually-connected lifestyle can contribute to anxiety.
Fairbanks says, “There is no doubt that being always connected contributes to and exacerbates mental health problems such as anxiety and depression. Anxiety serves a purpose in keeping us safe from dangerous situations. Stimulating the brain can simulate the feeling that one needs to face a challenge immediately, escape the difficulty or freeze in place until the situation is passed by or resolved on its own.”
He adds, “It is not entirely clear if anxiety is more common now than in the past, though it seems that it is according to different polls.”
Hewitt shares an example of when our digital culture can spark feelings of anxiety, which can lie in conditioned, unhealthy responses. She says, “A cell phone itself may or may not trigger anxiety depending on how a person thinks about it and responds to it. If a person thinks every time their cell phone registers an email, call or text that it could be an emergency and they have to check the phone immediately, they will likely behave in ways that trigger feelings of anxiety.”
She says, “This is why it’s important to talk with a healthcare provider to better understand the causes of the anxiety so that treatment can be most effectively tailored to the specific type of anxiety one is experiencing,” Hewitt notes.
HOW TO SOOTHE THE SYMPTOMS
When anxiety has begun to disrupt your life, it’s time to head to your primary care doctor. You may then be referred to a psychiatrist or another mental health professional for additional assistance.
Medication is a viable solution to those who struggle with daily anxiety.
Fairbanks shares that 8.3% of American adults are currently taking anti-anxiety medications, and you can discuss these options with your doctor.
Hewitt says that anxiety disorders are most often treated with a combination of medication and psychotherapy — specifically, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), also known as “talk therapy.” Fairbanks adds that this form of therapy is considered the “standard approach of psychotherapy for mood disorders.”
CBT fosters practical skills and allows anxiety sufferers to release their thoughts and feelings with a therapist. In fact, the Department of Psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill cites that 60% of those who engage in CBT see a noticeable improvement in their anxiety symptoms.
There are also plenty of homeopathic ways to combat anxiety. Fairbanks recommends regular exercise, spending time outdoors, sufficient sleep, meditation, healthy eating, disconnecting from technology and a good social support network. He also advises avoiding alcohol, caffeine, nicotine and other stimulants.
He says, “The best ways to treat anxiety are to prevent it. It’s also important to practice these good habits when one is not feeling anxious in order to obtain the greatest benefit in the moment and to prepare for moments when anxiety does occur.”
“Anxiety is common,” Hewitt says. “When anxiety gets to the point that it interferes with a person’s daily life activities, which include work, relationships and hobbies, they should seek consultation with a healthcare professional such as a primary care physician or a mental health provider. Anxiety is treatable and there are a range of treatments that include medications, talk therapies, exercise and mindfulness activities. And people can work with their healthcare providers to tailor these treatments to their individual situations: their lifestyle, their available time and their values.”