Anxiety is a normal human response to changes in our lives, especially when the changes are stressful.
In the past few years, our society has been a regular source of stressful changes: a pandemic, an uncertain economy, extreme weather, etc.
Most of us experience our own personal stress, too. It’s often caused by things like job changes, grief, an unexpected expense, or a change in an important relationship.
More than ever, many of us are feeling waves of anxiety and learning healthy ways to acknowledge and deal with these feelings.
But what if our anxious feelings never subside? What if anxiety turns into a permanent way of life?
There’s a big, yet sometimes subtle difference between normal anxiety and an anxiety disorder.
Normal anxiety happens occasionally. This kind of anxiety has a cause and an effect.
We don’t always know the cause of our anxiety right away, especially if the cause is general. We may need a few minutes to realize, “I’m really worried about coming up with my car tax bill,” or “It really bothers me that my daughter isn’t happy in her new school.”
Sometimes, talking through our feelings with a friend, family member, or professional counselor can help identify the cause of our occasional anxiety. And we may need to employ techniques, such as deep breathing, to resolve the feelings.
Still, if it happens only occasionally and we can define our feelings and their causes, we’re probably experiencing normal anxiety.
An anxiety disorder can’t be resolved by identifying the cause and monitoring the effects of our normal anxious feelings.
In fact, the cause of our feelings may no longer be clear: The causes and effects may be indistinguishable from each other. The effects may even become causes of their own, creating an elaborate web of symptoms and causes that are impossible to untangle on our own.
The symptoms of an anxiety disorder are persistent, intense, and hard to control. Feeling anxious becomes a normal way of life.
People with anxiety disorders often live their lives in fear. They spend a lot of time trying to manage their anxiety, but the anxiety seems to manage them instead. They have to work their anxiety into their plans every day.
If you have an anxiety disorder, you may have grown accustomed to the condition, but that doesn’t mean anxiety disorders are normal. They’re a medical condition that should be treated — just like an ear infection or high cholesterol.
Left untreated, an anxiety disorder can grow worse and start to take an even bigger toll on daily life. Treatment may include medicine, counseling, or a combination of both — but treatment and recovery begin with a simple conversation that can help diagnose the disorder.
Anxiety disorders occur in many different forms. Some of the most common anxiety disorders include:
Generalized anxiety disorder symptoms vary, but many people with this condition worry excessively about events that have not happened yet and may never happen. They imagine worst-case scenarios and begin to expect them.
Someone with this condition often fears making the wrong decisions — decisions that will bring about the worst-case scenario. They have trouble setting aside their anxiety about anything that’s uncertain.
Understandably, they can become overwhelmed by having to think about so much so often. This can lead to detachment or an ongoing lack of focus.
Generalized anxiety makes people feel paralyzed by their fears about the future in general, but someone with a phobia feels intense fear and anxiety about something in particular.
This intense fear can be connected to just about anything. It could be:
The list could go on and on, and some people with phobias have more than one object of anxiety. But to qualify as an anxiety disorder, the phobia exceeds a normal fleeting response or a preference to avoid a particular object.
For example, feeling wary around a neighbor’s aggressive dog isn’t necessarily a phobia — it’s a healthy fear. People with phobias go to great lengths to avoid the object of their anxiety because they will experience severe anxiety symptoms, or even a panic attack, if they have to face their fear.
Someone with claustrophobia, for example, would turn down a job on the 22nd floor of an office building because getting to the office would require an elevator ride. Standing in a small, enclosed space for several minutes each day would be out of the question.
We all feel different levels of comfort in social situations based on our personalities and life experiences. Any new social experience can cause normal anxiety at first.
Someone with a social anxiety disorder experiences regular fear and anxiety about everyday social interactions. These feelings interrupt their normal relationships, job duties, school attendance, or any other routine.
People with a social anxiety disorder may:
Some people with social anxiety disorders experience symptoms in large social gatherings but not small groups — or vice versa.
Anyone could have a panic attack. They occur when the mental stress of anxiety manifests itself in physical symptoms like a fast heart rate or difficulty breathing. Some people who experience a panic attack for the first time confuse the symptoms with those of a heart attack.
Having one or two panic attacks in a lifetime isn’t too far out of the ordinary. But regular panic attacks are a sign of a panic disorder, a medical condition that should be treated.
Some people with panic disorders become anxious about the disorder itself. They worry incessantly about the possibility of having another panic attack.
As a result, driving a car, taking care of a child, eating at a restaurant — these sorts of normal activities will feel impossible because they could be interrupted by an incapacitating panic attack at any moment.
Separation anxiety is a normal phase of child development. Since children depend, almost fully, on their parents or guardians, it’s normal for them to feel anxious when separated.
If separation anxiety continues beyond the time when it’s developmentally appropriate, it may be a sign of a separation anxiety disorder.
Adults can suffer from this kind of disorder as well. Someone with this condition might worry, incessantly, about their friends and family members getting injured or killed.
A separation anxiety disorder interferes with normal relationships. An adult with this condition, for example, may not want their young adult child going away to college or moving to a different city. This fear puts an unnatural strain on the relationship.
Primary care physicians can provide some guidance for people who are experiencing severe anxiety symptoms, but a mental health specialist is better equipped to diagnose a specific kind of anxiety disorder.
When you seek help from a mental health care clinic, a psychologist or another mental health care specialist may conduct a psychological exam. During this exam, which will seem like a normal conversation to the patient, the mental health care provider will take note of symptoms and possible diagnoses.
Treatment can include:
Some patients benefit from using both types of treatment at the same time.
Nobody knows, precisely, what causes anxiety disorders. But we do know that anxiety disorders seem to be connected to one, or more, risk factors.
Someone who has experienced any of the following risk factors could be more likely to develop an anxiety disorder. These risk factors shouldn’t be confused with the causes of anxiety. They’re simply correlatives which means they’re often present in people who get an anxiety diagnosis.
Keep in mind, also, that only a professional mental health care provider can help you understand how these risk factors might connect to your unique experience with anxiety.
Witnessing or experiencing a traumatic event is a common risk factor for developing an anxiety disorder. Experiencing trauma as a child increases the risk, but adults who witness or experience trauma also face a higher risk of developing a disorder.
Trauma can include a natural disaster, violence, or an accident.
Anxiety disorders can accompany health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer, or a variety of other chronic conditions. Sometimes, anxiety arises before the physical health condition is even diagnosed. Anxiety can also be a side effect of medication used to treat medical conditions.
Ongoing stress can be a risk factor for an anxiety disorder, especially when the stress becomes a way of life. Stress is personal, and different people handle it differently.
Stress can be caused by living conditions, caregiving, physical health conditions, grief, finances, relationships, or just about anything else.
Anxiety disorders aren’t hereditary like genetic conditions and some forms of cancer and heart disease. But there can be a family connection. Having a blood relative with an anxiety disorder is a risk factor.
Anxiety disorders can also correlate with other mental disorders such as depression or bipolar disorder.
Anxiety disorders can accompany an overreliance on drugs and alcohol. Withdrawing from drugs or alcohol can also be a risk factor for an anxiety disorder.
While there’s no guaranteed way to prevent an anxiety disorder, some lifestyle choices can help discourage a disorder from taking hold.
Some of the proven strategies to prevent anxiety disorders include:
This kind of advice can help people in general, but it isn’t customized for anyone’s specific experience. Only meeting with a qualified mental health professional can help develop solutions that are specific to your life and experience.
Wherever you are, there’s a good chance you’re close to a mental health clinic staffed by people who can help you overcome mental health challenges such as anxiety disorders. If not, you should be able to find an online appointment.
In Greensboro and High Point, N.C., Mental Health Associates of the Triad offers outpatient mental health care to anyone who needs it. Mental Health Associates provides a safe place for discussing mental health concerns. The staff is qualified to diagnose, counsel, treat, and support a wide variety of patient needs.
Ultimately, getting help starts with a conversation — just a series of questions and answers. It’s in conversation that people share their unique challenges and needs. Then, your care plan will be tailored to your unique challenges and experiences.
Mental health is an important part of our overall health. It’s an essential part of living a full life. Getting expert help from a health care provider in your area can help return your life to the right balance.
In the United States, one out of two people will be diagnosed with a mental illness at some point in their lifetime. 20% will experience mental illness in a given year. 80% will experience emotional abuse. Today, 1 in 25 Americans lives with a serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depression.
For those we serve, we are the essential and often-postponed “first step” toward the goal of mental wellness. Whether the concern is for yourself or a loved one, know that we welcome you with deep compassion and respect. What seems frightening or hopeless today can quickly become a path to a brighter, more positive tomorrow.
Whenever you’re ready to take that first step, we’re ready to help.