Everybody has anxiety at some point in their life, but what defines anxiety as a mental health issue? The American Psychological Association defines anxiety as an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased heart rate, sweaty palms and weak muscles. People with anxiety disorders usually have recurring intrusive thoughts or concerns. They may avoid certain situations out of worry.
Researchers are not sure why some people experience anxiety disorders while others do not. What is known is that anxiety disorders are usually a result of a combination of biological, psychological and individual factors. They do know that brain chemistry can contribute to the development of anxiety disorders. Neurotransmitters in the brain include serotonin, norepinephrine and gamma-aminobutyric acid. In addition, research has shown that changes in certain areas of the brain are involved in anxiety. Often anxiety disorders run in the family.
There are various types of anxiety disorders:
- panic disorder
- social anxiety
- generalized anxiety
Any of these anxiety disorders are categorized as a mental illness. A quick overview of the disorders illustrates that phobias are an intense fear of a specific thing, object, animal or situation. Many people are afraid of something but the fear and the feelings associated with it do not disrupt their lives. But when a fear grows into a phobia, it disrupts a person’s life and they change the way they live in order to avoid that object or situation.
Panic attacks characterize panic disorder. They are repeated and are unexpected in nature. Some common feelings associated with panic attack are an intense fear along with a racing heart, shortness of breath and/or nausea. People who live with panic attacks fear them and worry that something bad will happen as a result of the panic attack; such as death, convulsions or hospitalization. As a result often people change their behaviour to avoid the possibility of another panic attack.
Agoraphobia is the fear of being in situation where a person can’t escape if they start having a panic attack. Often the person living with agoraphobia will avoid public places and in the extreme situations avoid leaving their home.
Social anxiety disorder is the intense fear of being embarrassed or viewed in a negative way by someone else. It is not that the person is simply shy it is that they fear the judgement of others and the possibility of embarrassment in front of others. It makes going out, work or school extremely difficult.
Generalized anxiety disorder on the other hand is the worry around everyday problems. Just as intense, the person has prevailing anxiety over something others would consider minor. It is characterized by the intense worry for six or more months and often includes physical symptoms such as muscle tension and/or sleep problems.
What can you do if you suffer from an anxiety disorder? There is help available through counselling which helps you work with your thoughts and learning what are healthy (positive) thoughts and which ones are unhealthy (negative) thoughts. The goal being that a person will become aware of their negative thoughts and the effect they are having on their body and mind and learn new thought patterns and strategies to work with anxiety.
Medication is another option. Antidepressants are sometimes prescribed as are antianxiety medications. Both often help lessen the frequency and severity of the anxious thoughts. Often people will do a combination of therapy and counselling.
There is a support group run through the Regina General Hospital. Please see the reference list below for the link.
There are a number of excellent books written on the subject. Listed below are three examples:
- When Panic Attacks: The New, Drug-Free Anxiety Therapy That Can Change Your Life Paperback – June 12, 2007 by David D. Burns M.D
- Panic Attacks Workbook: A Guided Program for Beating the Panic TrickPaperback– October 19, 2004 by David Carbonell
- Hope and Help for Your Nerves– September 4, 1990 by Claire Weekes
There are also some very good apps that you can have on your phone to access at any time. Listed below are three free examples:
- Worry Box – Anxiety Self Help
- Self-help for Anxiety Management (SAM)
While anxiety may feel like a life sentence it does not have to be one, there is hope and help available if you reach out. It is important to explore all the options and find a treatment that works for you and your individual needs. Anxiety affects everyone differently and as a result each individual needs to find a treatment that is tailored to their individual needs.