Anxiety Disorders

Megan Bandy
June 21, 2021

On the surface, anxiety is a feeling of fear or nervousness that everyone experiences in life. It is a naturally occurring response the human body has to threatening situations to increase alertness and awareness while speeding reaction time. It can cause us to sweat or shake before a big presentation or bite our lips during a big test. In dangerous situations, anxiety can help us be vigilant and resourceful so we can remain safe. 

However, for some people, this feeling can occur intensely, excessively, and randomly, often leading to stronger physical responses, like anxiety attacks or panic attacks. Anxiety disorders can make someone feel helpless as the emotions and reactions are difficult to control and can have major impacts on work, relationships, and daily activities.


Types of anxiety

While anxiety disorders have a lot of overlap due to the shared experiences of intense anxiety and other bodily responses that accompany it, learning more about individual anxiety disorders and how they present themselves is key to understanding yourself or a loved one who may be experiencing an anxiety disorder. It is also important to keep in mind that one person may have more than one type of anxiety disorder at once or throughout their lifetime.

Some of the most common anxiety and anxiety-related disorders include: 

  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

Generalized anxiety disorder is characterized as persistent and excessive fear and worry. This anxiety is typically not associated with one specific stimulus or event and can instead feel very “generalized”. With GAD, anxiety responses may seemingly come out of nowhere even during the most mundane daily activities.

  • Panic Disorder

Panic disorder involves regular episodes of sudden and intense dread. While most anxiety disorders have associated physical symptoms, the random and intense nature of these panic attacks can make the somatic responses, like shortness of breath, chest tightness, and heart palpitations, feel even more painful. The combination of terror and pain leads many people to feel like they’re dying or having a heart attack. Panic attacks can be self-perpetuating, as the experience of having one can lead an individual to become increasingly anxious about it happening again.

  • Social Anxiety Disorder

While generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder aren’t typically associated with one specific stimulus, social anxiety disorder is more acutely tied to a phobia of social situations, like parties, crowded events, and other public places. This fear may lead people to avoid others, which can lead to strained relationships, isolation, and loneliness.

  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Obsessive-compulsive disorder is a mental health condition that involves uncontrollable obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors. OCD can cause individuals to experience regular and intense anxiety, although there is some debate over whether or not it should be categorized as an anxiety disorder, since it also involves unique behaviors and stimuli. People with obsessive-compulsive disorder are likely to become intensely preoccupied with one or a few very specific anxieties and may unintentionally and uncontrollably respond to these anxieties by doing very specific, often repetitive behaviors.

While these anxiety (and related) disorders tend to be the most common, there are many other anxiety disorders that can impact people very intensely, including specific phobias. It’s important to be on the lookout for signs of an anxiety disorder in yourself and loved ones so you can seek treatment in a timely manner, rather than living with the anxiety longer than you need.


Anxiety Symptoms

Anxiety disorders often have many different symptoms that can impact someone’s mental, emotional, and physical state. 

Some common symptoms of an anxiety disorder include:

  • Intense and overwhelming feelings of dread
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Persistent worry, restlessness, or nervousness with no clear cause
  • Nausea, heartburn, and other GI problems
  • Headaches and other body aches
  • Clenching, shaking, or trembling
  • Increased heart rate or feeling like your heart is racing
  • Lightheadedness, dizziness, and fainting
  • Sweating (not in response to heat or exercise)
  • Trouble concentrating or redirecting your attention away from worry

More symptoms may be related to an anxiety disorder, depending on an individual’s specific circumstances and diagnosis. Many of the physical signs of anxiety overlap with those of other medical illnesses, so it’s important to discuss your concern with your doctor to identify the exact problem you’re experiencing and find the appropriate treatment.


Statistics and prevalence


Risk factors and causes of Anxiety

Although anyone can develop an anxiety disorder, certain factors can increase your risk, including:

  • Trauma
  • Stressful events or periods of time
  • Family history
  • Drug and alcohol use
  • Personality type and traits
  • Other existing mental or physical illnesses

While these risk factors can impact a person’s chances of developing anxiety, the exact causes of anxiety disorders aren’t known. To put it simply, some people are just more naturally prone to anxiety than others and no singular cause can be determined. However, some specific events and circumstances can trigger new or disordered anxiety in those who are already predisposed. These events are also included as “risk factors” since anxiety is not always “triggered” suddenly in this way. Situations that can initiate an anxiety or an anxiety disorder in someone who is already at risk include:

  • Traumatic life events, like abuse, illness or injury, natural disaster, etc.
  • Sudden and overwhelming life changes
  • Certain illnesses, like hypothyroidism, hyperthyroidism, heart disease, etc.
  • Substance withdrawal
  • Medication side-effects

Disordered anxiety can also be a symptom of and can occur alongside another mental health issue. Depression, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and other mental disorders can increase your risk of developing an anxiety disorder. Those with a dual diagnosis of anxiety and another mental health issue should be intentional about treating both, rather than just the anxiety, to ensure long-term, effective recovery.


Anxiety Treatment

Though anxiety disorders can be debilitating and overwhelming when you experience them firsthand without help, they are incredibly manageable with the help of a professional. Treatment for anxiety disorders is largely dependent on an individual’s unique circumstances but often revolves around the right combination of therapy and medication. While some people may respond well to just regular therapy, others may find that most of their symptoms fade with the help of medication. 

Therapy for anxiety often looks a little different depending on the specific disorder someone is experiencing. In general, mental health professionals will often utilize conversation and specific behavioral techniques to help you identify specific thoughts, feelings, or behaviors, understand what they mean, learn to cope with and address them, and move on. Individual sessions may range as far as exact practices, but therapy is an incredibly effective, powerful way to help someone with anxiety regain control of their life.

Anxiety Medications

For some people, therapy may not be as effective on its own in reducing anxiety and related symptoms. In these cases, medication can be prescribed to help treat your body directly. The most common medications prescribed for anxiety disorders are either anti-anxiety medications, such as benzodiazepines (Valium, Xanax, etc.) or buspirone (Buspar), or antidepressants like SSRIs. Because benzodiazepines tend to have some significant potential drawbacks, most notably, the risk of dependence, they are generally only prescribed for short-term treatment and are not a good option for those with a history of substance dependence or substance use disorder. However, buspirone and SSRIs can be great and effective alternatives, especially for longer-term use.

If you’re experiencing disordered feelings of anxiety, talk to someone about your options. Anxiety disorders are incredibly common and entirely manageable with professional help. Talk to your doctor or mental health professional to help identify the right treatment plan for you and your needs. 


Anxiety disorders and substance use

Those who are affected by an anxiety disorder are also at a greater risk for developing a drug addiction or substance use disorder. Many of those with anxiety, particularly those with an untreated anxiety disorder, turn to drugs and alcohol as a way of coping with what they’re feeling.

According to a study from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, more than 17% of those with a substance use disorder in the last year had a diagnosable anxiety disorder.

Co-occurring anxiety and substance use disorders can seem overwhelming to tackle, especially when they feed each other, with anxiety leading to more substance use and withdrawal leading to increased anxiety. Effective care for those with a dual diagnosis of an anxiety disorder and a substance use disorder involves treating both at the same time. If you’re experiencing high anxiety and feel you may cope with substances, like drugs and alcohol, talk openly with your doctor or mental health professional about the right treatment plan for you.

If you are seeking help with your loved one’s addiction, contact us today or complete our quick contact form below, to speak with an addiction treatment specialist.

If you need help with your substance use disorder, we are here to help you build your confidence and momentum towards the future you want. We provide treatment services for adults with alcohol, opioid, and other substance use disorders. We are currently located in LouisianaMassachusettsNew JerseyNorth CarolinaOhio, Texas, and Washington.

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Megan Bandy

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