Anxiety Background Information
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When we talk about anxiety we are covering a lot of territory from phobic fears to chronic worry. The emotion of anxiety has many labels depending upon what version or cluster of symptoms you might experience. Acute fear ranks at the top of the intensity pyramid with a panic attack representing the zenith of that fearful state. The body becomes activated along a range of mental and physical signals that tell you you’re uncomfortable, anxious and fearful.
Your body activates a specialized set of neural highways that stimulates the adrenal glands and brain neurotransmitters that prepare for either flight, or fight – the natural options to life threats. Stress, triggered by either a real threat like a snake across your path or an imagined one like shadows resembling an intruder, produces anxious or fearful reactions. If such situations were only momentary your body would reset itself and be just fine, but if instead the perceived threats are more subtle and insidious, as are the stresses of modern life, then chronic anxiety may result.
Also, in some people, an irrational fear develops where the mere thought of a situation, let alone the actual presence, results in an anxious response, such a phobias of animals, certain places (airplanes, elevators, freeways), or things (needles, blood, animals) which cause a fearful and avoidance reaction.
Prevalence: Anxiety conditions are the most prevalent psychological conditions in America. Estimates by the National Institutes of Mental Health are that about 1 in 4 teens and adults will develop an anxiety condition that deserve professional help. However, less than a quarter of them will receive minimally adequate treatment.
Causes: Anxiety disorders occur due to a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Recent scientific discoveries suggest that genes implicated in the development of a variety of anxiety conditions. Environmental factors such as an overload of stress also play a role, particularly in triggering an anxiety disorder in people with the genetic predisposition. Also, the style of processing information appears to also have a role in predisposing one or another anxiety disorder with analytical or thoughtfully oriented people, along with an overload of stress and a family history of anxiety or depression are strongly correlated to developing an anxiety condition.
Social Factors: The fast pace of modern American life puts pressure on us to do more and rest less often. High levels of change in the workplace, hectic family life, and the disconnection of extended family systems result in a loss of supportive relationships that can help with child-rearing, provide outlets for discussing problems, and prevent feelings of alienation or isolation. However, anxiety disorders can occur even with a strong social support system.
Forms of anxiety disorders:
Generalized Anxiety – A condition characterized by chronic and excessive worry and nervousness.
Panic Disorders – Brief episodes or attacks of extreme and distressing symptoms that involve the body and mind which are so severe that fear of having such attacks becomes a preoccupation and often an avoidance from normal activities where a panic attack has occurred or might occur (called agoraphobia).
Social Anxiety –Worry and stress related to being in social situations often to the point that panic attacks may occur before or during social events such as work, play, education, and even small social events with other than family members.
Specific Phobias –The extreme fear and often avoidance of ordinary places, situations, or things such as elevators, blood or injections, or animals or insects. Panic attacks may occur for some sufferer before or during such encounters.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder –A set of symptoms that may result from a situation or event in which a person is at risk of death or serious injury or where a person has witnessed such an event occurring to others. The symptoms produce elements of reliving of the trauma, over-active body reactions, and disconnection from self or aspects of life.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder – A process of intrusive and unwanted thoughts that often lead to a specific set of behavior rituals that are intended to undo or stop the unwanted thoughts. For example, intrusive thoughts of contamination or disease may occur after touching the bottom of a shoe that lead a person to compulsively and excessively wash their hands.
Treatment & Prevention
Treatment: Most anxiety disorders respond well to proper treatment that may include both medication and psychotherapy. While medications can help relieve symptoms, they do not cure the disorder. Psychotherapy, particularly cognitive and behavioral therapies can allow a sufferer to fully recover from the disorder and reduce the likelihood of recurrence. In some cases medication is helpful at the beginning of treatment to arrest the most severe symptoms and provide a window of opportunity for psychotherapy to become effective.
Effective psychotherapy consists of 4 basic components. Psycho-education helps the person understand what form of anxiety they are experiencing, what is happening to them, why they are suffering from an anxiety condition, and an outline of treatment. A strong dose of relaxation training is another important component that incorporates both mental and physical elements. Cognitive strategies address the thought patterns that fuel anxiety and how to change unproductive thinking to patterns that stop feeding the anxiety cycle. Lifestyle and behavioral changes are added to create patterns of good sleep, healthy nutrition, appropriate exercise, and routines for relaxation, as well as specific skills that may be necessary such as assertiveness training and communication skills.
Prevention: Adequate stress management for individuals with a family history of one or another anxiety disorder may help prevent the development of a clinical disorder.