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What is Anxiety?

The American Psychiatric Association asserts that anxiety is a “normal reaction to stress.” Anxiety can be expressed as nervousness, fear, and increased alertness. Anxiety is an expression of concern for the future. However, when anxiety becomes excessive or lasts longer than what is considered to be normal, it may indicate the presence of an anxiety disorder.

According to the APA, anxiety disorders represent the most common mental health issue and may affect almost a third of the adult population, with more women than men experiencing the condition.

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) states that 18% of the US population may experience an anxiety disorder annually. In addition, data reveal that 8% of children and teens are affected.

And there’s more…

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that on a global scale, 1 person in 13 people suffer from anxiety.

Imagine doing a head-count for every person in the world—every thirteenth person suffers from anxiety.

The statistics are staggering.

Anxiety affects so many of us worldwide, so let’s take a closer look.

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Types of Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety Disorders can be categorized according to the situations in which they are prevalent and the symptoms they elicit. Certain environments and social situations evoke behaviors associated with anxiety for many individuals.

Anxiety in general is associated with a broader set of behaviors in a variety of settings. However, certain common behaviors and symptoms are more closely and commonly associated and can be grouped according to these narrower descriptions, which may give us better insight into the particularities of each type.

These categories can help us to better pinpoint these issues that may be interrupting our lives and address them more fully.

According to the Mayo Clinic, anxiety disorders can be divided into the following types:

  • Agoraphobia
    Fearing or avoiding places or situations in which we may feel trapped or helpless
  • Anxiety Disorder Due to a Medical Condition
    Anxiety or panic caused by physical illness
  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder
    Lingering fear or worry about upcoming events or activities in one or more aspect of living
  • Panic Disorder
    Intense anxiety often resulting in heart palpitations or chest pain (panic attacks)
  • Selective Mutism
    Inability to speak in some situations while able to speak in others (prevalent in children)
  • Separation Anxiety Disorder
    Extreme anxiety surrounding separation from parental figures (also common in children)
  • Social Anxiety Disorder
    Fear and extreme self-consciousness around judgment within social situations
  • Specific Phobias
    Extreme fear around particular objects or situations
  • Substance-induced Anxiety Disorder
    Anxiety or panic caused by medications or other substances or their withdrawal
  • Other Specified and Unspecified Anxiety Disorder
    Other significant anxieties not falling within established categories

Because anxiety can express itself in such varied ways, it is important for us to consider both the specific and general descriptions, symptoms, and contributing factors in order to gain the best understanding of this condition.

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Let’s have a look at some of the more common symptoms associated with anxiety. First, we’ll consider the broader spectrum and look at the general symptoms before diving into the more specific ones.

According to the Mayo Clinic, the general symptoms of anxiety can include, but are not limited to, 

  • Increased heart rate
  • Sweating and trembling
  • Sleep issues
  • Nervousness and tension
  • Worrying
  • Rapid breath
  • Avoiding anxiety-inducing situations
  • Gastrointestinal issues
  • Difficulty concentrating.

Again, these general signs and symptoms can occur over a wide range of environments and circumstances.

Now let’s take a deeper dive into the more specific symptoms within groups and categories of anxiety.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), a branch of the National Institute of Health (NIH), the following symptoms are commonly associated with these specific types of anxiety:

  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder
    • Excessive worry about life circumstances
    • Restlessness and tension
    • Muscle tension
    • Sleep pattern disruptions
    • Difficulty concentrating
    • Irritability
    • Fatigue
  • Panic Disorder
    • Intense, recurrent fear and panic attacks
    • Trembling, shaking, sweating
    • Shortness of breath or choking
    • Feeling out of control
    • Rapid, pounding heartbeat
    • Sense of doom
    • Worry about future panic attacks
    • Avoidance of panic triggers
  • Phobia-related Disorders
    • Intense fear surrounding a particular item or situation
    • Fear out-of-proportion to actual danger
    • Irrational worry about encountering object or situation
    • Steps to avoid object or situation
    • When encountered, experiencing intense anxiety
  • Specific Phobias
    • Fear is focused on type of situations
      • Fear of flying, heights
      • Fear of dogs, cats, snakes, etc.
      • Fear of needles/injections
      • Fear of blood
  • Social Anxiety Disorder
    • Fear of social or performance situations
    • Fear of evaluation and embarrassment
    • May avoid social situations
  • Agoraphobia
    • Fear being outside alone
    • Fear of crowds or being in line
    • Fear of enclosed or open spaces
    • Fear of public transportation
    • May become home-bound
    • Avoid situations they fear not being able to leave easily
  • Separation Anxiety Disorder
    • Fear of being separated from certain people
    • May worry harm will come to the person of their attachment
    • Avoid being apart from attached people
    • May avoid being alone
  • Selective Mutism
    • Fail to speak in social situations despite normal speaking skills
    • Often occurs with other anxiety disorders
    • Fear of social embarrassment.

Understanding how these anxieties may manifest in particular situations can help us to better recognize and address them.

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Warning Signs

A certain amount of anxiety is to be expected as we move through life. However, let’s have a look at some of the warning signs associated with anxiety. 

According to the Mayo Clinic, these are some warning signs that may indicate excess anxiety:

  • If your fears or anxieties are difficult to control
  • If your anxieties are upsetting
  • If your fears interfere with your work
  • If your anxieties are interfering with your relationships
  • If you feel depressed
  • If you misuse alcohol or drugs

Additionally, anxiety disorders can lead or contribute to other problems. These include

  • Sleep disruptions
  • Depression
  • Digestive issues
  • Headaches and pain
  • Substance abuse
  • Lowered quality of life
  • Social isolation
  • Job or school performance issues
  • Suicide

Anxiety, then, is an important consideration when examining mental health issues.

Because some amount of anxiety is a normal part of living, it is important to consider the frequency and intensity of anxiety present in our lives.

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) distinguishes between “Everyday Anxiety” and “Anxiety Disorder” with this comparison of symptoms:

Everyday Anxiety

  • Self-consciousness in awkward social situations
  • Worry about bills, jobs, important life events
  • Realistic fear of dangerous situations
  • Nervousness before tests and performances
  • Anxiety or sadness immediately after trauma

In contrast, the following symptoms are considered excessive and are associated with anxiety disorders:

Anxiety Disorder

  • Avoiding social situations for fear of judgment
  • Constant worry about life circumstances that cause distress
  • Irrational fear or avoidance of relatively non-threatening situations
  • Unexpected panic attacks and fear of having them
  • Flashbacks or nightmares from traumas months or years before

Any of the above conditions may indicate anxiety is beyond normal levels, so we should consider them carefully.

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Risk Factors

According to the Mayo Clinic, there are several risk factors that may increase our chances of having an anxiety disorder. Some of these are

  • Build-up of stress—A series of stressful events can build up to significant levels of anxiety.
  • Stress of an illness—People who have an existing serious health condition can experience anxieties about their futures, as well as treatments.
  • Trauma—As a child or an adult, those who experience or witness a traumatic event are more likely to develop anxiety disorders.
  • Other mental health issues—Those with depression and other mental health disorders often have anxiety disorders.
  • Personality—Certain personality types are more likely to have anxiety disorders.
  • Family history—Anxiety disorders may run in families.
  • Drugs and alcohol—The use or misuse of these substances or withdrawal may lead to or exacerbate anxiety.
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Depression and Anxiety

Depression often occurs alongside anxiety. According to Baylor College of Medicine, although the two often occur simultaneously, they are different conditions and should be treated as separate disorders. Regardless, there is some overlap with the symptoms of depression and anxiety, and the two are undoubtedly linked.

Harvard Medical School explores the links between anxiety, depression, and pain, explaining interactions among the three. Although in the past, researchers contributed this interplay to psychological factors, there is recent evidence to suggest that there are also biological mechanisms at work. 

In an article exploring the link between anxiety and depression, Baylor College of Medicine’s Dr. Sanjay Matthew asserts that over half of individuals with depression will have an anxiety disorder. He advises addressing both as potential issues when treating individuals with either depression or anxiety.

One of the symptoms of depression is anxiety. One of the possible negative outcomes of anxiety is that it may trigger or contribute to depression. The two disorders frequently occur at the same time, and appear to form a negative cycle or behavioral loop of sorts.

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Considering the prevalence of anxiety and its potentially harmful effects, we should educate ourselves and pay close attention to the levels of anxiety in our lives. Affecting a significantly large segment of the population both globally and nationally, anxiety has become the most common mental health issue for all of us to address.

Its detrimental effects on both adults and children and its links to depression and other mental health disorders make it a topic of import for organizations, service providers, parents, and  employers, as well as traditional, holistic, and alternative medical professionals.

Be aware of the levels of anxiety present in your life and their far-reaching implications.