Anxiety disorders are surprisingly frequent, and affect more Americans than does any other emotional disorder. They are more common than depression, manic depression, or abuse of alcohol and other substances. According to the American Psychiatric Association, while depressive disorders affect one person in 20, one in 12 suffers an anxiety disorder. Because consumers and doctors alike are less attuned to anxiety disorders than other emotional problems, these disorders often go unrecognized. This is unfortunate, because most cases of anxiety can be treated successfully. In fact, anxiety disorders are considered the most treatable of all emotional problems.
Depressed people will seem sad, or "down," or may be unable to enjoy their normal activities. They may have no appetite and lose weight (although some people eat more and gain weight when depressed). They may sleep too much or too little, have difficulty going to sleep, sleep restlessly, or awaken very early in the morning. They may speak of feeling guilty, worthless, or hopeless; they may lack energy or be jumpy and agitated. They may think about killing themselves and may even make a suicide attempt. Some depressed people have delusions (false, fixed ideas) about poverty, sickness, or sinfulness that are related to their depression. Often feelings of depression are worse at a particular time of day, for instance, every morning or every evening.
The hallmark of this problem is chronic worry and tension with no apparent cause. People suffering from generalized anxiety disorders may worry excessively about health, money, family, or work, often anticipating disaster. Although they are usually aware that their anxiety is more intense than necessary, they can't seem to let it go. Constant worrying contributes to trouble sleeping and relaxing. People with anxiety disorders may startle easily and have trouble concentrating. Generalized anxiety disorder often leads to depression.
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.
Other research focuses on the hippocampus, another brain structure that is responsible for processing threatening or traumatic stimuli. The hippocampus plays a key role in the brain by helping to encode information into memories. Studies have shown that the hippocampus appears to be smaller in people who have undergone severe stress because of child abuse or military combat. This reduced size could help explain why individuals with PTSD have flashbacks, deficits in explicit memory, and fragmented memory for details of the traumatic event.
If you, or someone you know, has symptoms of anxiety, a visit to the family physician is usually the best place to start. A physician can help determine whether the symptoms are due to an anxiety disorder, some other medical condition, or both. Frequently, the next step in getting treatment for an anxiety disorder is referral to a mental health professional.