Anxiety disorders are the most common of all mental disorders, affecting
about 10 percent of American adults. Some anxiety is beneficial, triggering
appropriate caution in dangerous or difficult situations. But for people
with anxiety disorders, this normally helpful emotion may become
overwhelming and disrupt daily life.
There are five categories of anxiety disorders, each with its own distinct
1. Panic disorder - feelings of terror that strike suddenly and repeatedly
with no warning. Many people develop intense anxiety between episodes,
worrying when and where the next one will occur.
2. Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) - recurring disturbing thoughts
(obsessions) and rituals (compulsions) believed necessary to prevent or
disperse the thoughts and relieve their discomfort. Depression or other
anxiety disorders may accompany OCD. Some people with OCD also have eating
3. Post-traumatic stress disorder - repeated re-experiencing or flashbacks
of a traumatic event. Anxiety regarding the recurrences, which are often
unpredictable, combines with the emotions of the experience. Symptoms may
be mild or severe.
4. Phobias - irrational fears. People with phobias experience persistent,
unrealistic, intense anxiety in response to specific external situations.
Phobias take several forms:
- specific phobia - a fear of a particular object or situation.
- social phobia - a fear of being painfully embarrassed in a social setting.
- agoraphobia - a fear of being in any situation that might provoke a
panic attack or from which escape might be difficult if a panic attack, or
generalized anxiety, occurred.
5. Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) - chronic and excessive worry and
anxiety in the absence of any provocation. Usually the impairment
associated with GAD is mild. However, the anxiety and worry can be so
extreme that they are uncontrollable, making it difficult to carry out even
the most ordinary daily activities.
At least 19 million Americans suffer from anxiety disorders.
Women are more likely than men to suffer from panic disorder, phobias and
generalized anxiety disorder.
Although anxiety disorders can occur at any age, onset of panic disorder,
OCD and phobias generally occurs in young adults. GAD usually appears in
childhood or adolescence.
Symptoms of anxiety disorders include panic attacks, recurrent disturbing
thoughts accompanied by behavioral rituals to relieve their discomfort,
flashbacks of traumatic experiences, nightmares, irrational fears, and
physical responses such as rapid heart rate, sweating, chest pain, a
smothering sensation, or feeling weak, faint or dizzy.
Anxiety disorders are highly treatable using a combination of medications
and specific forms of psychotherapy.
Antianxiety drugs relieve symptoms, often relaxing muscles, reducing
tension or reducing sleeplessness. However, many antianxiety drugs are
addictive and must be used with caution. Antidepressant drugs are also used
for some anxiety disorders; these drugs are not addictive.
Behavioral therapy helps people change specific behaviors, such as
compulsive rituals or fearful reactions, and helps them decrease or stop
Cognitive-behavioral therapy teaches people to react differently to the
situations and physical sensations that trigger panic attacks and other
anxiety symptoms. In addition, people learn how their thinking patterns
contribute to their symptoms and how to change their thoughts so that the
symptoms are less likely to occur. This awareness of thinking patterns is
combined with behavioral techniques to help people confront feared
Biofeedback is being used to help people with anxiety disorders manage
their physiological and emotional responses to anxiety-provoking
situations. In addition, new medications are also being evaluated in
While anxiety disorders are not preventable, early recognition of symptoms,
diagnosis and treatment can decrease or eliminate the symptoms and help
people manage responses to anxiety-provoking stimuli.
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