Anxiety? Anxious? Scared? Panic? Phobia? Do you often have the feeling of having anxiety? Does your heart start to beat faster? Do you sometimes feel dizzy? There is a great possibility that it will be an anxiety attack.
Anxiety is one of the most talked-about disorders. You sometimes hear it said that such and such a person is having anxiety or has an anxiety disorder, but you find it hard to imagine it. If you don’t have it, it’s hard to imagine what anxiety or anxiety disorder means to those who do. Often, people with anxiety even know that anxiety is not justified, but they don’t know how to deal with it.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is a natural emotion in the face of a perceived threat. It allowed our prehistoric ancestors to avoid danger and to survive in a very hostile environment.
- Anxiety is a normal and useful emotion, which is part of our reactions to the adaptation to external stimuli, and which allows us to mobilize our attention and raise our vigilance in situations of novelty, choice, crisis, or conflict. Anxiety is conventional when it is well-tolerated, if it remains controllable, when it is not perceived as excessive suffering and when it has no repercussions on daily life and the body.
- If occasional anxiety (during an exam, for example) is normal, anxiety that is persistent, excessive, and permanent is abnormal. When a person is chronically and exaggeratedly worried about everyday events, it is called an “anxiety disorder.” Anxiety is, therefore, abnormal when it becomes a permanent state when it occurs without reason, and especially when it limits the acts of daily life, instead of helping to overcome them.
- The first signs of anxiety usually appear in late adolescence and early adulthood. We can characterize anxiety by a feeling of insecurity, dread, fear, worry, or dread. It results in inner tension, a feeling of unease, or terror in the face of a recent or impending event. It can get out of hand and out of proportion to reality.
- Not everyone reacts the same to anxiety. Some will develop various disorders related to excessive anxiety that are difficult to manage; we then speak of “serious anxiety disorders.” Some people with severe anxiety disorders are unable to lead normal lives (e.g., leaving their homes, taking transport, etc.). Others live with more occasional, but unpredictable, crises. Certain events can also worsen the problems and increase anxiety: the loss of a loved one, a period of examination, new responsibilities at work, a divorce, etc.
- Anxiety is currently a major mental health problem because a third of the population would be affected, but the majority of people with anxiety do not get any treatment. It then becomes pathological and results in a request for help.
Pathological anxiety can very often become a complicated depression or addiction (e.g., alcohol). Among people with severe anxiety disorders, 50 to 90% have another mental illness such as depression or drug or alcohol use.
What are anxiety disorders?
Anxiety disorders are mental illnesses. Their different types are as follows.
A phobia is a penetrating fear of a precise thing such as an object, animal, or situation. Most of us are terrified of something, but it doesn’t mess up our lives. With phobias, a person changes the way he lives in order to avoid what they dread.
2. Panic disorder.
Panic disorder causes repeated and unexpected panic attacks. A panic attack is a sudden, intense fear that lasts a short time. It causes a lot of physical sensations, including increased heart rate, shortness of breath, or nausea.
It can be a usual reaction to a stressful situation or be part of other anxiety conditions. With panic disorder, panic attacks appear to happen for no reason.
People with this condition fear that they will have more panic attacks and may fear that something serious will happen as a result of the panic attack. To avoid triggering more panic attacks, some people change their routine.
Agoraphobia is the fright of being in a situation where one cannot escape or find help with a panic attack or other feelings of anxiety. A person may avoid public places or even avoid leaving their home.
4. Social anxiety disorder.
Social anxiety disorder leads to an intense fear of being embarrassed or being negatively evaluated by others. Therefore, people avoid social situations. More serious than shyness, this disorder can have a major impact on performance and relationships at work or school.
5. Generalized anxiety disorder.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder is excessive worrying about many everyday problems for more than six months. This anxiety is often far above normal, for example, intense anxiety about a minor concern. Many people experience physical symptoms as well, including muscle tension and trouble sleeping.
6. Other mental illnesses.
Some mental sicknesses are no longer categorized as anxiety disorders, although anxiety or fear is an important part of illnesses.
7. Obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder is composed of unwanted thoughts, images, or needs that cause anxiety (obsessions) or repeated actions to reduce anxiety (compulsions). Obsessions or compulsions usually take a long time and cause a lot of distress.
8. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Post-traumatic stress disorder can occur after a terrifying or traumatic event such as violence, an accident, or a natural disaster. Among the symptoms of PTSD, we note reliving the event through nightmares or flashbacks, avoiding remembering the traumatic event, and not feeling safe in the world, even in the absence of danger.
What are the signs of anxiety?
The signs of anxiety differ from person to person. On the psychic level, anxiety invades the whole field of thought.
A feeling of fear, worry, panic, or unease takes place. A feeling of loss of self-control predominates along with the feeling of no longer being yourself. We always fear the arrival of a catastrophe. Even when things are going well, we tell ourselves it’s not going to last.
Relationships with others are difficult because you feel irritable. Sleep disorders can appear (difficulty falling asleep, nocturnal awakenings, nightmares, etc.), leading to fatigue and memory problems, which only increase anxiety. There may be a state of panic which paralyzes and leads to a feeling of imminent death.
In the normal process of anxiety, the body prepares to face fear. We therefore frequently find in “anxiety disorder” associated physical signs that can make one think of other diseases:
- Sweating (sweaty hands, hot flashes, etc.)
- Shortness of breath
- Heart palpitations and chest pain
- Nausea, stomach pain, diarrhea, or constipation
- Dizziness, lightheadedness, or headache
- Tingling or numbness of the limbs with a feeling of weakness or tightness in the muscles
- An exaggerated startle response
- Difficulty concentrating or memory loss
- A lump in the throat, difficulty swallowing
- More frequent urination
What are the causes?
Anxiety disorders are often associated with life events (professional, emotional, and family).
How does anxiety evolve?
Anxiety can develop in different ways.
- Moderate anxiety can quickly progress to “severe anxiety disorder” either because of an event or a change in the life of an anxious person. The evolution occurs by an alternation between phases of decrease and increase in signs.
- Different periods of life cause anxiety to varying degrees: adolescence, menopause, and old age are particularly conducive to anxiety because of the profound changes taking place in the human body.
- When anxiety becomes serious, and therefore pathological, it alters or even completely paralyzes the functioning of the person in most areas of their existence. A person suffering from severe anxiety experiences considerable difficulties, both at work, in their family, sexual or social life.
- It can sometimes generate the avoidance of anxiety-inducing circumstances with real “phobias” which lead the person to “magical” (“contra-phobic”) actions or thoughts to fight against fear, as in “OCDs” by example.
- Pathological anxiety can progress to depression and isolation, sometimes leading to suicide attempts or addiction to alcohol or drugs.
What are the complications of anxiety?
People with anxiety disorders are aware that their thoughts and behavior are illogical and that it affects their lives.
- Fatigue, sleep problems and physical signs (e.g., headaches) cause feelings of sadness, guilt, and loss of motivation. One of the main complications of anxiety is, therefore, depression and the risk of suicide.
- The other very common complication of anxiety is the consumption of alcohol or drugs with the risk of developing a real addiction problem. These products will both relieve (“self-medication”) and worsen anxiety disorders by altering brain function. What is initially experienced as comfort will then become necessary and aggravate the signs of anxiety and depression?
- Long-term complications are possible, for example, an increased risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer, or diabetes.
How to treat anxiety disorders?
Healthy lifestyle. Reducing the intake of stimulants (alcohol, tobacco, coffee, etc.) and regular physical activity helps reduce anxiety.
Relaxation. It improves emotional control, decreases muscle and psychological tension.
Psychotherapies. There is a variety of rehabilitation that can benefit people with anxiety (behavioral and cognitive therapies, psychoanalysis, psychoanalytic psychotherapy, and group psychotherapy).
Medication. In some cases, anti-anxiety or anti-depressant medications combined with psychotherapy can help.