Anxiety: The Most Common Mental Disorder and Other Surprising Facts

More than 25 million Americans have an anxiety disorder. In fact, nearly 1 in 5 adults in the United States has an anxiety disorder. Most people think anxiety is a feeling of nervousness, unease or restlessness. It is, but it can also become overwhelming. People who have an anxiety disorder often experience intrusive, persistent thoughts that interfere with their functioning. Unfortunately, common misperceptions about anxiety persist. How many of these surprising anxiety facts do you know?

1. Anxiety can be helpful. And debilitating.

It’s completely normal—and healthy—to feel nervous and anxious before a big speech, public performance, or first date. The jitters we feel in those circumstances are the result of a heightened state of alertness. We know the stakes are high, so our bodies and brain kick into high gear. Sometimes, though, anxiety appears for no apparent reason. Some people feel panicky when they leave the house. Others feel a nearly constant level of concern that makes it difficult to function and enjoy life. If your anxiety interferes with your daily activities, you may have an anxiety disorder.

2. Generalized anxiety disorder often begins in childhood.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately 8% of American teenagers have an anxiety disorder. Symptoms often show up around 6 years of age. Because young children are still developing their verbal skills, they may not say, “I have anxiety” or “I’m really worried.” Instead, they might complain of stomach aches or headaches and throw tantrums. Other symptoms of anxiety in childhood include restlessness, inattention, avoidance, and frequent meltdowns.

3. Anxiety may be partly genetic.

No one knows exactly why some people develop anxiety and others don’t. Because anxiety disorders seem to run in families, researchers suspect there may be a genetic link. People who have a family history of anxiety or other mental health challenges are at increased risk for developing anxiety. Exposure to traumatic or stressful events may also trigger anxiety, especially in people who are genetically predisposed. Post-traumatic stress syndrome is one type of anxiety disorder.

4. Women are twice as likely as men to develop an anxiety disorder.

Anyone can experience anxiety, but women are far more likely than men to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, biological differences may explain why women are more prone to anxiety. Women are more sensitive than men to corticotropin-releasing factor, a hormone that affects the stress response. The female brain also takes longer to process serotonin, a ‘feel-good’ brain chemical. Some people believe anxiety is underdiagnosed in men.

5. Anxiety disorders increase your risk of health problems.

According to the National Institutes of Health, chronic anxiety increases your risk of heart diseasediabetes, substance abuse, chronic respiratory diseases, and gastrointestinal conditions, such as inflammatory bowel syndrome (IBS). Researchers are still untangling exactly how anxiety causes physical changes, but they know that long-term exposure to stress increases cortisol levels, which leads to decreased immunity and altered function of the heart and lungs.

6. There’s a link between anxiety and depression.

For many people, anxiety is a cause, or at least a trigger of depression. According to the Office of Women’s Health, women who have generalized anxiety disorder are at increased risk for developing depression. They’re also more likely to have a family history of depression. Unfortunately, depression can sap your energy and ambition and make it even more difficult to seek help for anxiety. However, effective treatment is available. Treating your anxiety may prevent or improve your depression and vice versa.

7. Anxiety can cause physical symptoms.

Many people know their anxiety can interfere with concentration and cause restlessness and irritability. Fewer people realize that anxiety can cause serious physical symptoms, including weaknessshortness of breath, rapid heart rate, nauseahot flashes, and dizziness. People who are experiencing a panic attack or severe bout of anxiety may feel like—and look like—they’re having a heart attack. When in doubt, seek medical attention or call 911 for immediate help.

8. Exercise may alleviate anxiety.

Numerous research studies have found that exercise can decrease anxiety symptoms. In fact, some studies have found that a single workout can quickly boost mood. The exercise doesn’t even have to be intense. A walk around the block may be as effective as a 45-minute run. However, physical activity isn’t the answer for everyone. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, “for some, exercise may not have a positive effect on anxiety…or may not make a strong impact on long-term mental health.”

9. Anxiety treatment can dramatically improve symptoms.

Anxiety is very responsive to treatment. The two most effective treatments are psychotherapy and prescription medication. Cognitive behavioral therapy is a type of psychotherapy that’s particularly effective for people with anxiety. It teaches them new and alternate ways of thinking about and responding to anxiety-producing situations. Prescription medications for anxiety include antianxiety meds and antidepressants. Treatment must be tailored to the individual. Some people do well with psychotherapy alone; some only take medication. Others do best with a combination of therapy and medication. Don’t give up on treatment. It may take time to find the treatment that’s most effective for you.

If you feel like giving up, tell your doctor or therapist sooner than later. They are trained to treat people who have the same types of disorders you have and they will guide you.