The WHO defines anxiety as “an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure.”
Anxiety disorder is a general term for several disorders that cause nervousness, fear, apprehension, and worrying. These disorders affect how we feel and behave and can cause physical symptoms. Mild anxiety is vague and unsettling, while severe anxiety can seriously affect day-to-day living. People with an anxiety disorder often present symptoms similar to clinical depression and vice-versa.
Anxiety disorders affect 1.5 million in Nigeria. It is the most common group of mental illnesses in the country. However, only 36.9 percent of people with the condition receive treatment. It is important to know the difference between normal feelings of anxiety and an anxiety disorder that requires medical attention
Anxiety Vs Anxiety Disorder
When faced with potentially harmful or worrying triggers, feelings of anxiety are not only normal but necessary for survival. These alarms become noticeable in the form of a raised heartbeat, sweating, and increased sensitivity to surroundings. A rush of adrenaline in response to danger causes these reactions. This adrenaline boost is known as the ‘fight-or-flight’ response.
Anxieties now revolve around work, money, family life, health, and other crucial issues that demand a person’s attention without necessarily requiring the ‘fight-or-flight’ reaction. That nervous feeling before an important life event or during a difficult situation is a natural echo of the original ‘fight-or-flight’ reaction.
The duration or severity of an anxious feeling can sometimes be out of proportion to the original trigger, or stressor. Physical symptoms, such as increased blood pressure and nausea, may also become evident. These responses move beyond anxiety into an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders occur when a reaction is out of proportion to what might normally be expected in a situation.
Types of Anxiety Disorders
Anxiety disorders can be classified into seven main types. These include:
- Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD): This is a chronic disorder involving excessive, long-lasting anxiety and worries about nonspecific life events, objects, and situations. It is the most common anxiety disorder. People with GAD are not always able to identify the cause of their anxiety.
- Panic disorder: Brief or sudden attacks of intense terror and apprehension characterize panic disorder. These attacks can lead to shaking, confusion, dizziness, nausea, and breathing difficulties. Panic attacks tend to occur and escalate rapidly and peak after 10 minutes. However, they may last for hours.
- Phobia: This is an irrational fear and avoidance of an object or situation. Phobias differ from other anxiety disorders, as they relate to a specific cause. The fear may be acknowledged as irrational or unnecessary, but the person is still unable to control the anxiety. Triggers for a phobia may be as varied as situations, animals, or everyday objects.
- Social anxiety disorder: This is a fear of being negatively judged by others in social situations or a fear of public embarrassment. This includes a range of feelings, such as stage fright, a fear of intimacy, and a fear of humiliation. This disorder can cause people to avoid public situations and human contact to the point that everyday living is rendered extremely difficult.
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD): This is an anxiety disorder characterized by thoughts or actions that are repetitive, distressing, and intrusive. OCD sufferers usually know that their compulsions are unreasonable or irrational, but they serve to alleviate their anxiety. People with OCD may obsessively clean personal items or hands or constantly check locks, stoves, or light switches.
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): This is anxiety that results from previous trauma such as military combat, sexual assault, a hostage situation, or a serious accident. PTSD often leads to flashbacks, and the person may make behavioral changes to avoid triggers.
- Separation anxiety disorder: This is characterized by high levels of anxiety when separated from a person or place that provides feelings of security or safety. Separation sometimes results in panic symptoms. It is considered a disorder when the response is excessive or inappropriate after separation.
Causes of Anxiety Disorders
Anxiety disorders have a complicated network of causes, including:
- Environmental factors, such as stress from a personal relationship, job, school, finances, traumatic event, or even a shortage of oxygen in high-altitude areas.
- Medical factors, such as the side effects of medicine, symptoms of a condition, or stress from a serious underlying medical condition.
- Brain chemistry.
- Use of or withdrawal from an illicit substance.
Excessive anxiety is most commonly triggered by the stress of day-to-day living and any combination of the above. It is usually a response to outside forces, but it is possible that anxious feelings can emerge from a person telling himself or herself the worst will happen.
Psychotherapy is one recommended treatment for anxiety. Treating a person with anxiety depends on the causes of the anxiety and individual preferences. Often, treatments will consist of a combination of psychotherapy, behavioral therapy, and medication. Alcohol dependence, depression, or other conditions can sometimes have such a strong effect on the individual that treating the anxiety disorder must wait until any underlying conditions are brought under control.
Although anxiety disorders cannot be prevented, and anxious feelings will always be present in daily life, there are ways to reduce the risk of a full-blown anxiety disorder. Taking the following steps will help keep anxious emotions in check:
- Reduce caffeine, tea, cola, and chocolate consumption.
- Check with a doctor or pharmacist before using over-the-counter (OTC) or herbal remedies to see if they contain chemicals that may make anxiety worse.
- Maintain a healthy diet.
- Keep a regular sleep pattern.
- Avoid alcohol, cannabis, and other recreational drugs.