Fact Sheet: Anxiety Disorders

Everyone experiences symptoms of anxiety, but they are generally occasional and short-lived, and do not cause problems. But when the cognitive, physical and behavioural symptoms of anxiety are persistent and severe, and anxiety causes distress in a person’s life to the point that it negatively affects his or her ability to work or study, socialize and manage daily tasks, it may be beyond the normal range. People with anxiety disorders have excessive levels of anxiety that significantly interfere with day to day to living.

Some Common Symptoms*

  • Fear
  • Trepidation
  • A sense of impending doom
  • or imminent danger
  • Environment feels unreal and
  • unfamiliar
  • Feeling detached from oneself
  • (out of body)
  • Irritable

Physical

Thoughts

Feelings

  • Heart palpitations /rapid heart rate
  • Chest pain
  • Hyperventilation /shortness of breath
  • Dizziness / Vertigo
  • Headache
  • Tingling/numbness of skin
  • Dry mouth
  • Choking
  • Gastrointestinal upset
  • Muscle aches
  • Restlessness
  •  Sleep disturbances
  • Excessive inappropriate worrying
  • Fear of dying
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Decreased attention span / easily distracted
  • Speeding or slowing thoughts
  • Insomnia
  • Vivid dreams
  • Fear
  • Trepidation
  • A sense of impending doom or imminent danger
  • Environment feels unreal and unfamiliar
  • Feeling detached from oneself (out of body)
  • Irritable

 

Some Common Signs*

  • Often anxious
  • Difficulty managing daily tasks
  • Avoidance of people and situations
  • Avoidance of activities that elicit reactions and sensations similar to those when anxious (exercise)
  • Anxious predictions (“I’m going to humiliate myself”)
  • Extreme safety precautions to feel “safe”
  • Excessive physical reactions relative to the context (heart racing and feeling short of breath in response to being at the mall)

* Please note that signs and symptoms, such as those above, may arise from other causes as well as the topic under discussion here and may require further medical review.

 Types of Anxiety Disorders

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD): GAD involves excessive anxiety and worry occurring more days than not for a period of at least six months, about a number of events or activities. It is characterized by difficulty in controlling worry.

Acute stress disorder: Acute stress disorder can occur after a person has experienced or witnessed a distressing or catastrophic event. The event may have involved actual or threatened death or serious injury. Disturbing memories of the traumatic event cause an emotional reaction and a sense of reliving the event leading to a significant degree of anxiety. Symptoms start to appear within one month of the traumatic event. Symptoms that occur after a longer period may mean the person has developed posttraumatic stress disorder.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): PTSD causes severe anxiety often coupled with other symptoms such as depression. Trauma is a natural emotional reaction to terrible experiences that involve actual or threatened serious harm to oneself or others. However, for some people, the thoughts or memories of these events seriously affect their lives; long after any actual danger has passed.

Phobias: Specific phobias involve an excessive or irrational fear of an object or situation. The fear is persistent, unreasonable and causes impairment, severe anxiety, and high stress. There are five subtypes of specific phobia:

  • animal type (fear of mice or spiders)
  • natural environment type (fear of storms or heights)
  • blood/injection/injury type (fear of seeing blood or receiving an injection)
  • situational type (fear of public transportation, elevators or enclosed spaces)
  • other type (fear of choking or vomiting)

Panic disorder: Panic disorder involves repeated, unexpected panic attacks (heart palpitations, sweating, trembling) followed by at least one month of persistent concern about having another panic attack. Panic attacks may be accompanied by agoraphobia, which involves avoiding specific situations (such as being outside the home alone, being in a crowd or standing in a line in public) because of a fear of having a panic attack in these situations without access to immediate help.

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD): People with OCD have uninvited or intrusive thoughts, urges or images that surface in the mind over and over again. People with OCD usually know that their obsessions are creations of their own minds, but they can’t control, ignore or get rid of them. Often people with OCD will try to reduce or suppress their obsessions by acting out certain rituals. However, rituals may become stuck and last for hours.

Some Common Treatments for Anxiety Disorders

Treatments for the different forms of anxiety disorders will vary, but all will benefit from professional psychological treatment. Effective treatments include supportive counselling, group therapy, peer support, drug therapy, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), relaxation techniques, stress management or a combination of all.

Anxiety Disorder

Professional Treatment

Generalized anxiety

disorder (GAD)

Learning and practicing daily relaxation will reduce physical symptoms. Identifying and challenging exaggerated worry and using structured problem solving to deal with situations is also effective in reducing symptoms.
Acute stress disorder

& PTSD

With peer support, specialized therapist support, and, as required, medication(s), individuals explore the details and emotions surrounding the original event. Identifying cues that evoke the memories will help prevent the physical reactions. This will continue until the memories and cues lose their power to disrupt one’s life.
Phobias Graded exposure is confronting and overcoming feared situations by developing a structured plan for achieving this. Professional support through this process is most effective.
Panic disorder The goal is to reduce the severity and frequency of panic attacks, then to lessen the anticipation of the attack. Learning the skills to manage a panic attack will also help to live a more functional life. CBT is a very effective treatment for panic attacks and disorders.
Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) Treatment may include putting the person into the situation that causes anxiety. Then over time, they are encouraged to resist carrying out the compulsive behaviour until the situation no longer causes anxiety. CBT is a common treatment, alone or with a combination of medication.

 

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