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Home arrow Health arrow Mental Health arrow Anxiety Explained: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

Anxiety Explained: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

Wendy Lord, RD
Written by Wendy Lord, RD
HR_author_photo_Edna
Fact checked by Edna Skopljak, MD
Last update: October 10, 2023
7 min read 1038 Views 0 Comments
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Anxiety disorders affect millions of people around the world. Discover the possible causes, the range of symptoms, and how to manage the mental health condition with medication, therapy, and healthy habits.

anxiety

You visit your doctor when you are coughing, experiencing physical pain, or have an itchy rash on your skin. You may even schedule an annual checkup for your physical health. However, when was the last time you had a mental health checkup? 

Depression and anxiety affect millions of people, yet many are still unaware of the signs and symptoms of mental illness and that it can be effectively treated to improve your quality of life.

This article explores the different types of anxiety disorders, the symptoms of anxiety, what causes anxiety, and how to treat anxiety so that you can live your life to the fullest.  

What Is Anxiety?

Anxiety is an emotional response to stressful situations, perceived threats, actual danger, and thoughts. It’s normal for people to experience it from time to time as it prepares the body to deal with potential problems.

Persistent excessive worry or excessive fear that causes an array of mental and physical symptoms and affects your health and quality of life may be an indication of an anxiety disorder.

There are several different types of anxiety disorders that vary in severity and symptoms but generally involve persistent and overwhelming feelings of worry and fear that are difficult to control.

The American Psychiatric Association reports that anxiety disorders affect up to 30% of adults and are the most common type of mental health disorder.

Symptoms of Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety is characterized by a set of general symptoms. However, the type and severity of the symptoms you experience depends on the type of anxiety disorder you have. 

Below is a list of anxiety disorder symptoms:

Physical symptoms:

  • Cold, clammy hands
  • Dry mouth
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Nausea
  • Sweating
  • Numbness or tingling in hands or feet
  • Muscle tension
  • Chest pain
  • Headaches
  • Stomach pain
  • Flushed skin
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue
  • Panic attacks

Mental symptoms:

  • Persistent fear
  • Extreme fear
  • Excessive worry
  • Nightmares
  • Repeated thoughts or flashbacks of traumatic experiences
  • Uncontrollable, obsessive thoughts
  • Difficulty concentrating

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Inability to relax
  • Ritualistic behaviors, such as washing hands repeatedly
  • Trouble sleeping

Types of Anxiety Disorders

There are several types of anxiety disorders. They are classified based on their causes and range of symptoms and include panic disorder, phobias, social anxiety, separation anxiety, and generalized anxiety disorder.

  • Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD): 2.9% of American adults are living with GAD, an anxiety disorder that involves persistently worrying about everyday things such as work and family responsibilities.
  • Panic disorder: 2–3% of American adults have panic disorder, an anxiety disorder characterized by recurring panic attacks. A panic attack involves both physical and mental symptoms, including heart palpitations, chest pain, difficulty breathing, fear of dying, and fear of losing control.
  • Social anxiety disorder: People who experience intense fear of being watched or judged by others in social situations may have a social anxiety disorder which was previously called social phobia.
  • Agoraphobia: People with agoraphobia fear being in situations where they may not be able to escape or get help easily. As a result, they may avoid using public transport, open spaces, crowds, and being away from the safety of their homes on their own.
  • Specific phobias: A fear of public speaking, snakes, or flying are examples of specific phobias that cause intense anxiety in some people. Although those who have a specific phobia are aware that their fear is irrational, they cannot control it.
  • Separation anxiety disorder: Affecting more children than adults, people with separation anxiety become anxious when they have to be apart from the people they love and trust the most.
  • Selective mutism: This mental condition is more common in children than in adults. Children with selective mutism don’t talk in some situations where they need to talk to others, such as in school, but are able to talk with family members or in comfortable settings.
  • Substance-induced anxiety disorder: Recreational drugs and alcohol may trigger anxiety and paranoia in some people. 

What Causes Anxiety? 

Similar to other mental health conditions, anxiety disorders are caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. In other words, stressful or traumatic situations trigger genetic vulnerabilities and cause symptoms of anxiety.

Below are 5 of the most common causes of anxiety disorders. 

#1 Chemical imbalance 

It is thought that an imbalance in the chemical neurotransmitters in the brain, such as serotonin and dopamine, may contribute to anxiety disorders. Research suggests that these important brain chemicals work together to modulate your mood, accounting for the anxiety and depression association.

#2 Family history of anxiety 

Having family members with anxiety disorders increases your risk of developing generalized anxiety disorder. Similarly, a strong genetic link has been observed for panic disorder. 

Recent research suggests that we inherit genetic mutations from our parents that result in us being predisposed to developing mental health conditions such as anxiety disorders.

#3 Drug misuse or withdrawal

Drug and alcohol misuse and withdrawal can make anxiety symptoms worse, making it more challenging to quit. It is, therefore, important to seek help from a medical professional to help you overcome the difficulties of overcoming an addiction. 

#4 Certain medical conditions 

Medical conditions such as brain tumors, thyroid disorders, menopause, infectious diseases, vitamin B12 deficiency, head injuries, and chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease can cause symptoms of anxiety.

Therefore, it is critical to consult with your doctor if your anxiety has developed recently and quickly, you have no family members with an anxiety disorder, or you haven’t experienced any changes in your daily life.

#5 Trauma 

There is a strong link between living through traumatic events and developing anxiety. The effect of experiencing trauma may result in a range of anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and separation anxiety.

How Is Anxiety Treated?

Although anxiety disorders are treatable, only a small percentage of people with an anxiety disorder seek help from their doctor. Those with generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, and panic disorder are most likely to consult with a mental health professional to help manage their condition.

Those with other types of anxiety disorders, especially a specific phobia, tend not to reach out for help. However, no matter what kind of anxiety disorder you have, it can be treated with a combination of anti-anxiety medications and psychotherapy and alleviated with supplements like nootropics, for example.

Medication 

Anti-anxiety medications commonly used to treat anxiety disorders include antidepressant drugs such as serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), and tricyclic antidepressants.

Benzodiazepines are another class of medication used to treat anxiety. They are particularly beneficial for the rapid treatment of panic attacks. However, some people develop a dependency on the medication. Therefore it must be used with caution.

Psychotherapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), including exposure therapy and cognitive therapy, is successfully used to treat anxiety disorders. 

Exposure therapy involves exposing the patient to the stimulus that causes anxiety and teaching them to recognize that it is not a real threat. Then they can learn coping strategies to help them control the fear associated with the situation.

Cognitive therapy is used to treat anxiety by addressing the patient’s inaccurate thoughts about the events that trigger their anxiety. By changing the thoughts of people with generalized anxiety, for example, you can change their behavior and prevent excessive worry.

Research suggests that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, separation anxiety, and specific phobias are best treated with exposure therapy. Cognitive therapy is most effective for generalized anxiety disorder. 

While consulting with a mental health professional in person is the best way to get the help you need to treat anxiety disorders, there are several useful apps based on CBT available. They include Sensa, Greatness, and Cerebral.

On the other hand, the next best thing to an in-person consultation with a therapist is having one on your phone. The BetterHelp app will connect you with a therapist who can assist you via text, audio, or video calls. 

How to Prevent Anxiety? 

Use the following tips to help manage anxiety disorders and reduce your symptoms.

  • Include physical activity in your daily routine.
  • Limit your intake of alcohol and recreational drugs, and avoid them altogether if they make you feel anxious.
  • Don’t smoke.
  • Reduce your caffeine consumption.
  • Yoga and meditation can help you relax and control your anxiety.
  • Ensure you get enough sleep.
  • Practice gratitude and keep a journal.
  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet that meets your nutritional needs.
  • Avoid isolating yourself. Make plans to spend time with friends and family.

When Should You See a Doctor for Anxiety?

If the anxiety disorder symptoms are severe or interfering with daily life, you should book a consultation with your doctor. They can diagnose anxiety disorders, prescribe anti-anxiety medications, and recommend the right therapy for you.

If the thought of picking up the phone and talking to someone about your anxiety triggers your anxiety symptoms, try booking your appointment online. Alternatively, there are many mental health apps that can help you develop a plan to manage your anxiety disorder.

A Word From an MD

Anxiety disorders are common in the stressful world we live in, yet people are still hesitant to talk about and seek help for mental illnesses. Taking care of your mental health is just as important as addressing physical health conditions.

Left undiagnosed and untreated, anxiety disorders have negative consequences for the person living with anxiety as well as those around them, including disability, reduced productivity, and increased risk of suicide.

Therefore, even if your anxiety symptoms are predominantly mental and hidden from others, and you don’t have any obvious physical symptoms, you must talk to your doctor or mental health professional about the best way to treat anxiety.

FAQs

What are the main signs of anxiety?

The most common signs of anxiety are excessive fear and worry, a rapid heartbeat, feeling nervous or restless, taking quick, shallow breaths, and difficulty concentrating.

How to reduce anxiety immediately?

Take deep breaths and exhale slowly to help calm your nervous system and reduce anxiety.

Can anxiety cause chest pain?

Yes, anxiety can cause chest pain. It is the result of raising stress hormones that make your breathing harder, increase your blood pressure, and make your heart beat faster.

Conclusion

There are several different types of anxiety disorders that cause a range of symptoms, from feeling nervous and restless to having a panic attack. No matter how mild or severe your anxiety symptoms are, they can have a negative impact on your daily life.

Don’t let anxiety rule your life. Mental health is equally important as physical health, and your healthcare provider can advise you on the best treatment strategy to help improve your quality of life.

Written by Wendy Lord, RD
Wendy is a Registered Dietitian with a passion for writing about nutrition, health, and medicine. Her aim is to translate the medical jargon to make information accessible to everyone so that they can make informed decisions about their health.
The article was fact checked by Edna Skopljak, MD
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Wendy Lord, RD
Written by Wendy Lord, RD
HR_author_photo_Edna
Fact checked by Edna Skopljak, MD
Last update: October 10, 2023
7 min read 1038 Views 0 Comments
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