Everyone has anxiety from time to time, but chronic anxiety can negatively impact your quality of life. It is a mental health disorder that can also have serious consequences for your physical health.
Recognizing Anxiety: Symptoms, Signs, and Risk Factors
Anxiety is a normal part of human life. You may have felt anxiety before addressing a group or applying for a job, for example. In the short term, anxiety increases your breathing rate and heart rate, concentrating the blood flow to your brain, where you need it. This very physical response is preparing you to face an intense situation. If it gets too intense, however, you might start to feel lightheaded and nauseous. An excessive or persistent state of anxiety can have a devastating effect on your physical and mental health.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), about 40 million American adults have some type of anxiety disorder every year. An anxiety disorder is a condition in which you experience frequent, powerful bouts of anxiety that interfere with your life. This type of anxiety can get in the way of family, career, and social obligations.
There are several types of anxiety disorder. Among them are:
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is excessive anxiety for no apparent reason. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), GAD affects about 6.8 million American adults a year. GAD is diagnosed when extreme worry about a variety of things lasts six months or longer. If you have a mild case, you’re probably able to function fairly normally. More severe cases may have a profound impact on your life.
Social anxiety disorder is a paralyzing fear of social situations and of being judged or humiliated by others. This severe social phobia can leave one feeling ashamed and alone. About 15 million American adults live with social anxiety disorder, according to the ADAA. The typical age at onset is 13. Thirty-six percent of patients wait a decade or more before pursuing help.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) develops after you’ve witnessed or experienced something traumatic. Symptoms can begin immediately or be delayed for years. Common causes include war, natural disasters, or physical attack. Episodes of anxiety may be triggered without warning.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is also a type of anxiety disorder. People with OCD are overwhelmed with the desire to perform particular rituals (compulsions) over and over again. Common compulsions include habitual hand washing, counting, or checking something.
Phobias are also anxiety disorders. Common phobias include fear of tight spaces (claustrophobia) and fear of heights (acrophobia). It creates a powerful urge to avoid the feared object or situation.
Panic disorder causes panic attacks spontaneous feelings of anxiety, terror, or impending doom. Physical symptoms include heart palpitations, chest pain, and shortness of breath. These attacks may be repeated at any time. People with any type of anxiety disorder may have panic attacks.
Anxiety Disorder Symptoms
Anxiety manifests in many different ways. Symptoms may be unique to the type of anxiety disorder or to the individual. All include magnified worry about something for more than six months. General symptoms include:
- nervousness, irritability, restlessness
- trouble sleeping, fatigue
- trouble concentrating
During moments of extreme anxiety or during a panic attack, these symptoms may be accompanied by:
- sense of danger or doom
- trembling, dizziness, weakness
- shortness of breath
- excessive perspiration
- feeling cold or overheated
- numbness or tingling in the hands
- rapid heartbeat, palpitations
- chest pain
- rapid breathing, hyperventilating
Panic attacks can happen when least expected and without obvious provocation. Frequent panic attacks may elevate your level of stress and contribute to social isolation.
People who have PTSD experience flashbacks, reliving a traumatic experience over and over. They may be quick to anger, startle easily, or become emotionally withdrawn. Other symptoms include nightmares, insomnia, and sadness.
OCD causes obvious behavioral symptoms such as performing compulsive, repetitive acts. Many people with OCD develop rituals they feel they must carry out to avoid perceived consequences. People with social anxiety disorder or other phobias usually try to avoid confronting the object of their fear.
Complications of Anxiety Disorder
Anxiety can trigger the “flight or fight” stress response, releasing a flood of chemicals and hormones like adrenaline into your system. In the short term, this increases your pulse and breathing rate so your brain can get more oxygen. You are now prepared to respond appropriately to an intense situation. Your immune system may even get a brief boost. Your body will return to normal functioning when the stress passes.
If you repeatedly feel anxious and stressed, or if it lasts a long time, your body never gets the signal to return to normal functioning. That can weaken your immune system, leaving you more vulnerable to viral infections. According to Harvard Medical School, studies have shown an increased rate of anxiety and panic attacks in people with chronic respiratory disease (COPD). COPD patients with anxiety tend to be hospitalized more often. Prolonged stress may lead to a general feeling of ill health. Vaccines may be less effective in people with anxiety disorders.
Your excretory and digestive systems also suffer. According to Harvard Medical School, there may be a connection between anxiety disorders and the development of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) after a bowel infection. IBS can cause vomiting, diarrhea, or constipation.
Anxiety disorder may cause loss of appetite and lack of interest in sex. Other symptoms include muscle tension, headaches, and insomnia. Frequent panic attacks can cause you to fear the anxiety attacks themselves, thereby increasing overall anxiety. The constant state of stress can lead to clinical depression. You are also at increased risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. If you already have heart disease, anxiety disorders may raise the risk of coronary events.
Risk Factors for Developing an Anxiety Disorder
Anxiety disorders can happen at any stage of life, but they usually begin by middle age. Women are 60 percent more likely to have an anxiety disorder than men, according to the NIMH.
Stressful life experiences may increase your risk. Symptoms may begin immediately or years later. Having a serious medical condition or a substance abuse problem can also lead to anxiety disorder.
Social Signs of Anxiety Disorder: What to Look For
It may be difficult to pinpoint anxiety disorders if there are co-existing mental health disorders, physical illnesses, or substance abuse problems. Signs that someone may have a serious anxiety disorder include:
- fear of leaving the house, social withdrawal
- extreme, unwarranted fear of particular situations or things
- compulsive or repetitive behaviors
- changes in personality
- trouble on the job or in school
- family or relationship problems
- alcohol or drug abuse
- depression or suicidal thoughts
- frequent emotional and physical health issues
If you have signs of anxiety disorder, see your doctor or make an appointment with a mental health professional.
Diagnosis and Treatment
To reach a diagnosis, your doctor must carefully evaluate your symptoms. Underlying medical conditions will need to be addressed. Anxiety disorders can be treated with medication, cognitive therapy, or behavioral therapy. Often, a combination of treatments is the best course of action. Treatment for anxiety disorders should be viewed as long term. In most cases, treatment for anxiety is successful, allowing patients to lead full, productive lives.