Anxiety Issues: The Types, Causes, Symptoms and Treatment Options

Reviewed by Dawn Brown, LPC, NCC

Published 01/08/2021

Anxiety is no stranger to many of us. It is normal for people to get anxious or nervous when dealing with an issue at work, ahead of a test, or before making a vital decision. However, anxiety disorders are entirely different from anxiety. The distress of an anxiety disorder can hamper one’s ability to live a normal life.

Anxiety disorder is a severe mental disorder. Patients dealing with anxiety disorders react to specific conditions or things with fear and panic and may exhibit physical signs of anxiety such as sweating and restlessness. For those with the disorder, fear and apprehension are recurrent and overwhelming,  and can be debilitating. A diagnosis of an anxiety disorder is necessary if the person’s reaction to a situation seems overboard, if the person is unable to stop or control the reaction, or if the anxiety restricts normal functions. Anxiety disorders may worsen without treatment, but fortunately, there are effective treatment options available.

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According to the American Psychological Association (APA), anxiety is an emotion that presents as feelings of tension, concerns, and physical changes like increased blood pressure. Statistics show that the disorder affects 40 million people in the US, but only 36.9% of those people undergo treatment. Discerning the difference between familiar feelings of anxiety and an anxiety disorder that needs medical attention help can help people get a diagnosis and treatment. In this article, you will learn about the types, causes, signs, and treatments for anxiety disorder.

Understanding anxiety disorder

Although anxiety can be distressing, it is not usually a medical disorder. If someone encounters potentially dangerous or worrisome triggers, feeling anxious is not just normal but important for survival. From the dawn of time, the notion of predators and impending danger has rightfully set off warning triggers in our minds that suggested evasive action. These warning signs are usually noticeable in the form of sweating, increased heart rate, and heightened sensitivity to surroundings.

The sense of impending danger triggers a rush of adrenaline, a hormone, and the  monoamine neurotransmitter in the brain, which consequently sets off these anxiety signs in a process known as the “flight or fight” reaction. This readies the person to confront the potential threat upfront or run to safety. For many people, escaping from larger animals and impending danger is not as urgent as the case would have been for our ancestors. Anxieties are now caused by crucial issues surrounding work, money, family, health, and life – issues that still require attention, without the urgency of a fight-or-flight response.

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The nervousness before a major life event or while in a challenging condition is a mirror of the original fight or flight response. It can still be crucial for survival – the fear of being hit by a car while crossing the road, for instance, means the person will take caution to prevent an accident.

The duration and extent of an anxious feeling can sometimes be blown out of proportion in contrast to the main trigger, cause or stressor. Physical signs, such as nausea and high blood pressure, may also occur. These reactions are more than just anxiety – they indicate an anxiety disorder. People with anxiety disorders often have recurring disturbing thoughts or worries. When anxiety reaches the point of disorder, it can affect the person’s daily functions.

Types of anxiety disorders

Many types of anxiety disorders are recognized, including:

GENERALIZED ANXIETY DISORDER

This disorder deals with excessive, impractical concern and tension, even if there is hardly anything to trigger the anxiety. These feelings happen often and are not caused by any particular issue. Instead, the worry seems to occur in a generalized manner, from one subject to the other.

PANIC DISORDER

People who have this disorder experience terrifying feelings that start abruptly and consistently without notice. The condition causes people to change their behavior while worrying about an attack and its meaning. Panic attacks happen intensely over a short period, usually 10 minutes, causing trembling and dizziness. Other signs of a panic attack include chest pain, profuse sweating, palpitations (racing or pounding heartbeat), or a feeling of choking, which might cause patients to feel like they are having a heart attack or going berserk.

POST-TRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER (PTSD)

PTSD is an issue that may start after a traumatic or terrifying incident, such as physical or sexual assault, unforeseen death of a loved one, or a natural disaster. PTSD can cause patients to have recurrent, scary thoughts, and recollections of the inciting event and can feel emotionally numb.

SOCIAL ANXIETY DISORDER

Also known as social phobia, social anxiety disorder is a condition that causes devastating worry and self-consciousness of normal social conditions. The concern is often based on the fear of being judged or criticized by others, or acting in a way that might subject them to ridicule or embarrassment.

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SEPARATION ANXIETY DISORDER

This mostly affects children and adolescents – it means excessive concern or fear of being separated from their parents. Children with a separation anxiety disorder are often concerned that their parents will suffer harm in a way and will not come back as they promised. Separation anxiety disorder is not just prevalent among preschoolers but also affects older children and adolescents due to stressful life incidents.

SPECIFIC PHOBIAS

A specific phobia is an excessive fear of a particular condition or object such as snakes, heights, or flying. The extent of fear is disproportionate to the situation and might leave the person constantly trying to escape regular, everyday situations.

AGORAPHOBIA

This is the fear and avoidance of events, places or situations where escape may be impossible or where help may be inaccessible if someone gets trapped. People usually misconstrue this condition as a fear of open spaces and outdoor settings, but it is more complex than that. Agoraphobia can cause someone to fear leaving their house, using an elevator or public transport or getting caught up in a crowd.

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OBSESSIVE-COMPULSIVE DISORDER

This condition involves obsession and compulsions. Obsession is persistent thoughts, images, or impulses that are hard to control and cause remarkable distress.

SELECTIVE MUTISM

This type of anxiety means that the person cannot speak in some places, or contexts like school, although they might be great with conversations around familiar faces. This could be described as an extreme type of social phobia.

Risk Factors and Causes of Anxiety Disorder

The precise cause of anxiety disorders is yet vague, but the condition, like other mental disorders, is not caused by personal weakness, childhood issues, or character flaw. As professionals continue their studies on mental illness, it is becoming evident that many of the disorders result from a combination of different factors, including biological and environmental conditions.

The causes of anxiety disorder are complex. Some might occur at once, some may trigger others and some might not cause anxiety disorder unless another condition is present. Some of the potential causes include:

Environmental stressors: This is related to the stressful events you have witnessed or experienced. The life events that are often associated with anxiety disorders include childhood abuse and neglect, suffering an attack (physical, emotional, or sexual abuse), the death of someone close, or witnessing violence. Environmental stressors may include relationship issues, family problems, and challenges at work.

Genetics: People who have close relatives with an anxiety disorder are at higher risk of experiencing it as well.

Medical factors: Anxiety disorder may occur as a symptom of a condition, effects of a medication, or the burden of undergoing an intensive surgery or extended recovery – probably for yourself or a loved one. Certain heart, lung, and thyroid conditions can trigger symptoms of anxiety disorder or make them worse. When discussing anxiety issues with the doctor, it is necessary to undergo a complete physical examination to rule out other ailments.

Brain chemistry: Some experts believe that certain anxiety disorders may be due to the dysfunction of hormones and electrical signals in the brain.

Withdrawal symptoms: Quitting an illicit substance may trigger effects that may worsen the effect of other potential causes. The use of recreational drugs and alcohol can predispose someone to an  anxiety disorder. Some people sometimes misuse substances to manage or hide anxiety symptoms.

History of a mental health disorder: Patients with another mental health condition such as depression are usually at a higher risk of anxiety disorder.

Symptoms of anxiety disorders

Some of the symptoms of anxiety issues include:

  • Irrational fear of dying
  • Sweating
  • The feeling of detachment from the world
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Chills or hot flashes
  • Going blank and unable to think
  • Restlessness
  • Fatigue
  • Trouble with concentration
  • Cold or sweaty hands
  • Inability to sleep
  • Dry mouth
  • Irrepressible, obsessive thought
  • Flashbacks and Nightmares
  • Muscle tension
  • Nausea
  • Irritability
  • Avoiding places, people, or activities related to the triggering incident
  • Hypervigilance
  • A general feeling of depression and gloom

Symptoms like shortness of breath, dizziness, fainting, chest pain, palpitations and weakness should not be ascribed to anxiety and require examination by a healthcare professional.

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Treatment options for anxiety disorder

Treatment for anxiety usually involves a combination of medication, psychotherapy, and behavioral therapy. Conditions such as depression and alcohol dependence often have a significant impact on mental well-being, so it is necessary to delay treatment for an anxiety disorder until all underlying conditions have been treated properly.

SELF-CARE

In some cases, a person can manage anxiety disorder themselves without medical supervision. However, it may not be a practical option for severe or long-term anxiety disorders. There are certain actions and exercises that can help people manage mild and short-term anxiety disorders, including:

Stress management: Knowing how to manage stress can help reduce potential triggers. Work on your organization skills by planning upcoming pressures and deadlines, make a list to make daunting tasks easier, and commit to taking breaks from study or work.

Relaxation methods: Simple activities can relieve the mental and physical effects of anxiety. These methods include deep breathing exercises, long baths, meditation, and yoga.

Exercise: exerting yourself through physical activities can boost self-esteem and trigger the release of chemicals that produce positive feelings. Physical activities can help change negative thoughts for positive thoughts. Create a list of negative thoughts that you find yourself battling with because of anxiety, and write another list after that, comprising positive, realistic thoughts to replace them. Forming a mental picture of tackling and conquering a particular fear can be beneficial if the anxiety symptoms are linked to a particular cause, such as a phobia.

Support network: Talk with supportive, familiar people, such as family members or a friend. Support group services may also be available in the local area and online.

COUNSELING

The conventional method of treating anxiety is psychological counseling. This may include cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), psychotherapy, or combined treatments.

CBT: This form of psychotherapy focuses on identifying and changing negative thought patterns that are the basis of anxiety and troubled feelings. In the process, healthcare providers aim to reduce distorted thoughts and transform how patients respond to situations or things that trigger anxiety.  For instance, a psychotherapist administering CBT for panic disorder will attempt to reiterate that panic attacks are not heart attacks. Exposure to the triggers and fears can be part of CBT therapy. This motivates people to face their fears and helps to lower sensitivity to the regular anxiety triggers.

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MEDICATIONS

Different types of medications can also be used for anxiety management medicines that can be effective for controlling some of the mental and physical symptoms including benzodiazepines, beta-blockers, and tricyclics. Name brand examples of Benzodiazepines include Diazepam or Valium, which often have minimal side effects, except for drowsiness and potential dependence.

Antidepressants also help with anxiety, although they are generally used to treat depression. The doctor may prescribe serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI), which have minimal side effects than older antidepressants but may potentially cause nausea, jitters, and sexual dysfunction at the beginning of treatment. Other name brands of  of antidepressants include Prozac (fluoxetine) and Celexa (citalopram).

Other types of medications that can be used for anxiety treatment include tricyclics, monoamine oxidase inhibitors, beta-blockers and buspirone. Consult the medical professional if the side effects from any of the prescribed drugs worsen.

In summary

Anxiousness is a natural human emotion and not a medical condition. The emotion is necessary for survival when someone encounters a dangerous situation. Anxiety is a disorder that causes a disproportionate or exaggerated response compared to the causative agent.

After identifying and treating the cause of anxiety, total recovery is usually possible. In cases where the cause cannot be immediately identified, the person may experience anxiety for a long period, maybe throughout life, though treatment is available for the symptoms. Treatment can help with the successful management of anxiety, even if it does not cure the condition. Effective medications are available to alleviate most of the symptoms. Counseling sessions with mental health professionals can also be highly effective. Get started by taking an assessment test for anxiety disorder.