Fear and anxiety are a normal--even essential--part of life. They prepare us for danger, creating physiological changes that enable us to effectively respond to a threat. Fear is very straightforward. It arises in response to immediate danger, so it is usually unexpected, very intense, and limited to the situation at hand. Your response to the fear, such as jumping out of the path of an oncoming car, quickly resolves the situation.
Anxiety, on the other hand, is more general and complex. It is felt in anticipation of danger, and is associated with the ability to predict, prepare for, and adapt to change. Often, it lasts a long time, and its cause remains ill-defined. For example, someone uneasy about public speaking may experience a tightness in the stomach for days before a scheduled talk.
Both fear and anxiety send signals through the body that prepare all systems for possible danger. Hormones, such as adrenaline and catecholamine, are released in what is known as the "fight or flight" response. The sudden increase in hormone levels speeds up the heart and increases the amount of blood being pumped. At the same time, the muscles tighten, increasing the individual's ability to fight or flee from danger. The intensity of these physiological responses varies according to the seriousness of the event or thought that sparked the emotion, the strength of the individual's fear or anxiety, and his or her previous experience and genetic makeup.
Many people with anxiety disorders benefit from joining a self-help group and sharing their problems and achievements with others. Talking with trusted friends or a trusted member of the clergy can also be very helpful, although not a substitute for mental health care. Participating in an Internet chat room may also be of value in sharing concerns and decreasing a sense of isolation, but any advice received should be viewed with caution.
Stress management techniques and meditation may help you to calm yourself and enhance the effects of therapy, although there is as yet no scientific evidence to support the value of these "wellness" approaches to recovery from anxiety disorders. There is preliminary evidence that aerobic exercise may be of value, and it is known that caffeine, illicit drugs, and even some over-the-counter cold medications can aggravate the symptoms of an anxiety disorder. Check with your physician or pharmacist before taking any additional medicines.
Although anxiety disorders take several distinct forms, certain general symptoms tend to appear in all of them. When discussing their condition, people with anxiety disorders often report the following:
- cold/clammy hands
- dry mouth
- fast pulse
- lump in the throat
- muscle aches
- numbness/tingling of hands, feet, or other body part
- racing or pounding heart
- rapid breathing
- upset stomach
Feelings associated with anxiety include impatience, apprehensiveness, irritability, and decreased ability to concentrate. People suffering from anxiety may also worry, for no particular reason, that something bad is going to happen to themselves or their loved ones. Individuals with anxiety disorders may make such statements as:
- I always thought I was just a worrier, but I would worry about things for days, to the point where I couldn't even sleep.
- I had a very strong feeling of impending doom, like I was losing control in an extreme way.
- I was always worried that if I didn't do certain things, my parents were going to die.
- I felt as if my heart was going to explode, and I couldn't calm down.
Not everyone who is depressed has all depression's symptoms, but everyone who is depressed has at least some of them, co-existing, on most days. Depression can range in intensity from mild to severe. Depression can co-occur with other medical disorders such as cancer, heart disease, stroke, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, and diabetes. In such cases, the depression is often overlooked and is not treated. If the depression is recognized and treated, a person's quality of life can be greatly improved.
Physical symptoms of this disorder include: trembling, twitching, muscle tension, headaches, irritability, sweating, nausea, hot flashes, light-headedness, and difficulty breathing. GAD is diagnosed when psychological and physical symptoms of anxiety last more than a month and are not accompanied by the symptoms of other anxiety disorders.
Many organizations today supports research into the causes, diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of anxiety disorders and other mental illnesses. Studies examine the genetic and environmental risks for major anxiety disorders, their course--both alone and when they occur along with other diseases such as depression--and their treatment. The ultimate goal is to be able to cure, and perhaps even to prevent, anxiety disorders.
Like heart disease and diabetes, the brain disorders are complex and probably result from a combination of genetic, behavioral, developmental, and other factors.
Scientists are also conducting clinical trials to find the most effective ways of treating anxiety disorders. For example, one trial is examining how well medication and behavioral therapies work together and separately in the treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Another trial is assessing the safety and efficacy of medication treatments for anxiety disorders in children and adolescents with co-occurring attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. For more information about clinical trials, for example the National Library of Medicine's clinical trials database.
Psychopharmacology, the treatment of psychiatric disorders and emotional distress with medication, has developed over the last fifty years, as our understanding of the workings of the brain has increased in sophistication. When medication is prescribed for mental and emotional illness, the most frequent goal is to restore the chemical balance within the brain, thereby restoring equilibrium to the entire system. Certain drugs function to address certain symptoms, such as when sedatives are prescribed for insomnia. Medications can work to slow disease processes, such as when anti-oxidants are used to treat Alzheimer's. Still other drugs control cravings and curb other problematic behaviors, such as taken to control alcoholism.
It is not entirely clear why psychotropic medications work; yet, it appears that they reestablish balance within the chemistry of the brain. Behavior is determined through messages transmitted within the brain from one nerve cell to another through various chemicals. These chemicals are called neurotransmitters. Through the millions of nerve cells within the brain, chemicals trigger memories, sleep patterns, perceptions, feelings, moods and thoughts. The electric current that carries the messages are received by nerve ends, called synapses, which then release the neurotransmitter. These chemicals, in turn, propagate the message by stimulating the next nerves in line to send on the electrical message. Once used, the neurotransmitter chemical is returned and stored in the nerve end. This recycling process is called reuptake. When this signaling process goes askew, the effects are seen in a person's behavior and experienced in his emotions, perceptions, sensations, and ideas.
Unrestrained anxiety can lead to any of several emotional disorders, all characterized by an unpleasant and overwhelming mental tension with no apparent identifiable cause. While most people with anxiety disorders are completely aware that their thoughts and behavior are irrational and inappropriate, this insight gives them no help in controlling their symptoms.
Each anxiety disorder has its own distinct features, but they are all bound together by the common theme of excessive, irrational fear and dread.
Experts have yet to agree on the root cause of anxiety disorders. In fact, most concede that several factors may be at work in each case.
Biochemical theory suggests that biologic imbalances, perhaps among the neurotransmitters in the brain, may be the primary cause of anxiety disorders. Indeed, in one study researchers were able to trigger a panic attack in some people simply by infusing certain chemicals. Many scientists involved in anxiety research now argue that correcting biochemical imbalances with medication should be the first goal of treatment. Other studies suggest that biochemical changes can also be achieved through the psychological and behavioral changes produced by psychotherapy.
Psychoanalytic theory holds that anxiety stems from unconscious conflict arising from discomfort or distress during childhood. Once the source of the anxiety is identified, it can be eliminated by resolving the underlying conflict. However, most studies find that people with anxiety disorders come from stable homes, with childhood backgrounds similar to those of people without anxiety disorders.
Stress, trauma, uncertainty. Most theorists agree that, other factors aside, stress, trauma, and uncertainties can play a role in the development of anxiety disorders. Studies show a relationship between anxiety and stress, which can be defined as a consequence of adapting to a change. Challenges such as the death of a loved one require a major adaptation that can contribute to the development of an anxiety disorder. Uncertainty during transitions, or about the future, can also produce anxiety. Some studies have found that a stressful event precedes the appearance of many anxiety disorders, though this result is not yet conclusive. The influence of these factors appears to vary with the disorder. In post-traumatic stress syndrome, such factors play a major role, whereas in obsessive- compulsive disorder, brain chemistry appears to be the primary culprit.
Although it's uncommon, certain medical problems can mimic the symptoms of anxiety, or even produce it. The palpitations and shortness of breath caused by an irregular heartbeat can easily be mistaken for anxiety. A clot in the lung (pulmonary embolism) often causes unexplained feelings of anxiety. Neurological problems such as epilepsy and brain disorders can be responsible for symptoms of anxiety. So can anemia, diabetes, thyroid disease, and adrenal problems. In general, these symptoms will disappear when the underlying disease is brought under control, although the anxiety sometimes requires separate treatment.
Prescription drugs and those purchased over the counter also can cause anxiety symptoms. Cold medicines, diet pills, antispasmodic medications, stimulants, digitalis, thyroid supplements, and, paradoxically, antidepressants given to reduce panic all may cause anxiety. Discontinuing a variety of drugs, including tranquilizers, sleeping pills, and certain blood-pressure medicines can lead to withdrawal symptoms that often include anxiety.
If you have been treated previously for an anxiety disorder, be prepared to tell the doctor what treatment you tried. If it was a medication, what was the dosage, was it gradually increased, and how long did you take it? If you had psychotherapy, what kind was it, and how often did you attend sessions? It often happens that people believe they have "failed" at treatment, or that the treatment has failed them, when in fact it was never given an adequate trial.
When you undergo treatment for an anxiety disorder, you and your doctor or therapist will be working together as a team. Together, you will attempt to find the approach that is best for you. If one treatment doesn't work, the odds are good that another one will. And new treatments are continually being developed through research. So don't give up hope.
Information in this document about Antidepressants named Understanding depression is for End User's use only and may not be sold, redistributed or otherwise used for commercial purposes. The information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments of Antidepressants. Additionally, the manufacture and distribution of herbal substances are not regulated now in the United States, and no quality standards currently exist like brand name medicine and generic medicine. Talk about Antidepressants to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.