How to figure out if you have an anxiety disorder and what treatment can work for you
Anxiety is your body's natural response to stress. It may cause you to feel nervous, worried, or fearful about the future, and it's a common emotion ahead of new or challenging life events.
At some point, everyone has felt this kind of anxiety. However, some people may have an anxiety disorder, which is when these feelings of fear or worry are persistent, excessive, and interfere with daily life over several months.
Here's what you need to know about the types of anxiety disorders and their symptoms, what causes them, and how to get the right treatment to manage anxiety.
Table of Contents
What are anxiety disorders?
About 18% of Americans experience an anxiety disorder each year. There are seven types of anxiety disorders, and each has different triggers that cause excessive fear or worry.
Mental health professionals use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) to diagnose anxiety disorders.
According to the DSM-5, the seven types are:
- Generalised anxiety is characterised by excessive worry about two or more aspects of your life, such as finances or social interactions, that occurs for more than six months.
- Specific phobia involves intense fear of heights, blood, needles, spiders, or other certain objects or scenarios.
- Social phobia or social anxiety disorder is the general intense fear of social situations or performances, such as giving a speech.
- Selective mutism is when someone normally capable of speech cannot speak in certain situations or to specific people. It often occurs with social phobia.
- Separation anxiety is the excessive fear or worry of being away from your home, loved ones, or someone that you feel attached to.
- Agoraphobia is the fear of being outside the home alone, such as in open spaces like a park, enclosed spaces like a crowded supermarket, or using public transportation.
- Panic disorder is characterised by anticipatory fear of recurrent panic attacks, which can lead to the avoidance of situations where a panic attack is feared.
In fact, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) had previously been classified as anxiety disorders, but in the DSM-5, they were re-categorised as separate disorders.
Anxiety feels different for everyone, and there's no one way to experience it. Some people may have general feelings of worry, while for others, it can be tied to a specific place or situation.
For people with anxiety, feeling excessive worry or fear is the main symptom. But anxiety can also produce a range of psychological, cognitive, and physical symptoms.
Often, these symptoms include:
- Increased heart rate
- Rapid, shallow breathing
- Restlessness, or the inability to relax
- Difficulty concentrating
- Trouble sleeping
Sometimes, you might wake up with anxiety ahead of a big day, nervous about all the tasks you have to complete. Other times, anxiety can be worse at night, and your mind starts racing as soon as you lay down in bed.
Anxiety symptoms can strike at any time, whether they are related to a specific trigger or not.
Anxiety and panic attacks
Panic attacks are sudden, intense outbursts of fear. Anyone can experience these attacks, though they may be more common for someone with an anxiety disorder.
There are differences between a panic attack and an anxiety attack. For example, anxiety attacks are not listed in the DSM-5. Panic attacks are recognised, along with their 13 major symptoms:
- Increased heart rate
- Shortness of breath or the feeling that you can't breath
- Trembling or shaking
- Choking sensation
- Chest pain
- Nausea or other abdominal discomfort
- Lightheadedness, dizziness, or feeling faint
- Feeling suddenly cold or hot
- Going numb or tingly in certain parts of the body
- Feelings of detachment from yourself or reality
- A sense of doom, or fears that you will die
- Fear that you're losing control
Generally, a panic attack occurs when someone experiences at least four of these symptoms. Anxiety attacks can share these symptoms, but they are usually preceded by stress or worry - while panic attacks don't always have a clear trigger.
It's not fully possible to stop a panic attack or sudden outburst of anxiety, and it will usually resolve on its own after 5 or 10 minutes.
What causes anxiety?
There isn't one exact cause for anxiety, and researchers believe that it's a combination of genetic and environmental factors.
Anxiety is partially genetic - numerous studies have found that you're more likely to develop an anxiety disorder if another member of your family also has one.
But overall, researchers believe that environmental factors play a bigger role. For example, if your parents have anxiety, you're also likely to model their behaviours as you grow up.
In addition, stressful events - whether it's social embarrassment or a failed performance - can alter your brain's response to stress and act as a trigger for anxiety.
Traumatic life events, especially early in childhood, can also increase your risk of developing an anxiety disorder. These events include sexual abuse, physical or verbal parental abuse, or the early loss of a parent.
Social isolation, for an extended period of time, may also contribute to feelings of anxiety, and exacerbate symptoms for people with anxiety disorders.
If you're experiencing the symptoms of anxiety, you should talk with your primary care physician or a licensed mental health professional - such as a psychologist or therapist.
To make a diagnosis, your doctor may ask you to complete a self-assessment to gauge the severity of your symptoms. They might also conduct a physical exam to determine whether your anxiety could be linked to an underlying medical condition.
Though it may seem difficult, it's possible to effectively deal with anxiety and improve your mental health.
Depending on your anxiety symptoms and medical history, a doctor will typically recommend a combination of lifestyle changes, therapy, and medication.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is one of the most effective treatments for anxiety. During CBT, a therapist can help you practice anxiety-provoking situations to learn how to better manage your response, adapt to difficult circumstances, and deal with uncertainty.
In fact, research has found that about 60% of people who go through CBT will be able to substantially reduce their anxiety.
Our colleagues at Insider Reviews have compiled a list of the best online therapy providers to help you get started.
Natural remedies for anxiety
There are also many lifestyle changes you can make to calm anxiety on your own.
Some of the best self-treatment methods include:
- Practicing mindful breathing
- Learning how to meditate
- Getting enough sleep
- Exercising regularly
- Avoiding alcohol, caffeine, and drugs
There is limited research to support whether CBD and marijuana can help with anxiety for patients with certain disorders, and you should not use drugs to treat your anxiety without talking to your doctor first.
Medication can be quick and effective at reducing anxiety symptoms for those with anxiety disorders.
Doctors will often prescribe medication alongside CBT, because it can help patients better cope with their anxiety and further benefit from therapy.
But these medications are not meant for long-term use. Instead, they're for helping to control anxiety symptoms or prevent intense episodes in the short term.
You should always talk with your doctor before taking medication for anxiety or changing anything about the frequency of your medication regimen.
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