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What Is Anxiety?

Anxiety, or extreme apprehension and worry, is a normal reaction to stressful situations. In some cases, however, worry becomes excessive or chronic and can cause sufferers to dread everyday situations.

The condition of steady, pervasive anxiety is called Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Yet there are numerous anxiety-related disorders. One is panic disorder—severe episodes of anxiety that occur in response to specific triggers. Another is obsessive-compulsive disorder, marked by persistent intrusive thoughts or compulsions to carry out specific behaviors, such as hand-washing. Post-traumatic stress disorder may develop after exposure to a terrifying event in which severe physical harm occurred or was threatened. Anxiety so frequently co-occurs with depression that the two are thought to be twin faces of one disorder. Like depression, anxiety strikes twice as many adult females as males.

Generally, anxiety arises first, often during childhood. Evidence suggests that both biology and environment can contribute to the disorder. Some people may have a genetic predisposition to anxiety; however, even so, development of the condition is not inevitable. Early traumatic experiences can also reset the body’s normal fear-processing system so that it is hyper-reactive.

Anxiety is typified by exaggerated worries and expectations of negative outcomes in unknown situations, and such concerns are often accompanied by physical symptoms. These include muscle tension, headaches, stomach cramps, and frequent urination. Behavioral therapies, with or without medication to control symptoms, have proved highly effective against anxiety, especially in children.

What Does Anxiety Feel Like?

Typically, those who suffer from prolonged anxiety experience a range of symptoms, including excessive worry about health, money, family, work, or school performance—even when there are no signs of trouble, irrational expectations of the worst outcome in many situations and an inability to relax and general irritability.

The somatic or physical symptoms of anxiety may also include insomnia, fatigue, headaches and muscle tension, difficulty swallowing, trembling or twitching and frequent urination.

Anxiety Is An Overactive Alarm System

In people with anxiety disorders, the brain circuitry that controls the threat response goes awry. At the heart of the circuit is the amygdala, a structure that flags incoming signals as worrisome and communicates with other parts of the brain to put the body on alert for danger. Early life events, especially traumatic ones, can program the circuitry so that it is oversensitive and sends out alarms too frequently and with only minor provocations. Survival mandates a system for perceiving threats and taking quick, automatic action, but those with anxiety see threats where there are none, perhaps because emotional memories color their perceptions.

The First Steps in Coping With Anxiety

Research demonstrates that the most effective treatments for anxiety are behavioral. Such treatments often involve gradually exposing sufferers to the situations they fear. Anxiety therapy may also focus on changing distorted thought patterns that underlie the condition. Drugs may help patients control their anxiety, but they are typically effective only during treatment and do not usually cure the condition. Increasingly, researchers are finding that mindfulness meditation can be a successful technique that helps lessen anxiety.

A Range of Treatment Options

Anxiety disorders can often be addressed successfully with a combination of therapy and medication. For therapy, patients may undergo psychotherapy or cognitive behavioral therapy, in which they learn to change how they respond to situations that induce anxiety. For medications, clinicians may, for limited periods of time, prescribe antidepressants such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or tricyclics, tranquilizers such as benzodiazepines; they may also prescribe beta blockers for specific events. Different strategies can also help people who experience feelings of anxiety but the severity of which falls below the clinical threshold for diagnosis. Habits such as exercising, sleeping well, and limiting the amount of caffeine and alcohol consumed can prove helpful. Strategies such as taking deep breaths, acknowledging limits to fully controlling situations, pushing back against anxious or irrational thoughts, and observing the circumstances that tend to produce anxiety are proven to reduce anxiety by helping people feel better prepared in the future.

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