Anxiety tends to be a oft-misunderstood disorder, partly because the same word is used to describe a worried feeling – which is completely normal and appropriate in many situations and to a certain degree. Partly this confusion also comes from the fact that there are many disorders usually classified more broadly as anxiety. WedMD states that the variety of anxiety disorders affect 1 in 20 people in the United Kingdom – so that is around 3,000,000 people in this country alone!
Unfortunely, until recently, sufferers of anxiety were generally seen as having a personal weakness or character flaw. The stigma attached to this very common issue meant it was often swept under the carpet. But as research progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that anxiety is caused by a variety of factors, usually including changes in the brain and environmental stress. Various studies have shown that anxiety is linked to a changing of the balance of chemicals in the body, that it can be hereditary, and that it can be triggered or caused by trauma or other significantly negative events.
There are no tests to determine if you have anxiety, although sometimes a doctor will use various tests to check if a physical illness is causing certain symptoms that are also linked with anxiety. Generally a diagnosis of anxiety comes from a doctor’s assessment of the severity and duration of the following symptoms – and whether they cause an inability to function in normal daily tasks:
- Feelings of panic, fear and uneasiness
- Uncontrollable, obsessive thoughts
- Repeated thoughts or flashbacks of traumatic experiences
- Ritualistic behaviours, such as repeated hand washing
- Problems sleeping
- Cold or sweaty hands and/or feet
- Shortness of breath
- An inability to be still and calm
- Dry mouth
- Numbness or tingling in the hands or feet
- Muscle tension
The mix and severity of these symptoms can lead to a general anxiety diagnosis, or a specific disorder such as panic disorder, OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder), PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder), social anxiety disorder, and a range of phobias.
Usually there is a blended approach to treating anxiety and its related disorders. This includes anti-depressants and other anxiety reducing drugs (the medical approach), counselling with a mental health professional, cognitive behavioural therapy, relaxation therapy, and diet and lifestyle changes. On that last point, cutting down on caffeine intake is often recommended.
Hopefully as more research unfolds, this generation, which is experiencing a huge rise in anxiety diagnoses, will also see a rise in the ability of society to support and treat this common issue.