All About Anxiety

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by By Ken DuBois /

KING5.com

Posted on June 16, 2009 at 8:22 AM

Updated Thursday, Nov 12 at 1:52 PM

About the Author

Ken DuBois is a marketing guru by day and a freelance writer by night. He has written film reviews for Reel.com, and worked for a time as a theater critic. He is passionate about working out: When he's not in the pool, he's hiking, biking, walking and, weather permitting, working on his backhand.

A little anxiety is a good thing. It serves to warn us about a real risk or danger, and oftentimes that's just what we need. If your heart races, your head spins, and your stomach tightens when you're confronted with a snarling dog, a figure looming in a dark doorway, or the ex-boyfriend who ruined your credit, your mind and body are doing what they should. These things feel bad, and that's why you're compelled to walk away.

But anxiety is a problem when the symptoms don't match the threat, or when there's really no threat at all. In that case, the problem may be an anxiety disorder, with symptoms ranging from nervousness to paralyzing fear. While shopping at a supermarket, for example, a person with social anxiety may feel uncomfortable and anxious to leave; a person who suffers from panic disorder may feel overcome with terror, and unable to move.

The American Psychological Association breaks anxiety disorders into the following categories:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder, in which the person has a non-specific sense of worry about life in general.
  • Phobias or intense fears about certain objects or situations. Social anxiety is one type of phobia, which centers around a person's fear of social settings or public places, particularly when that person is the focus of the social situation.
  • Obsessive compulsive disorder, which is characterized by unwanted, obsessive thoughts or feelings, and compulsive routines and rituals.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder, in which a person who has survived a severe physical or emotional trauma will experience anxious thoughts and feelings when reminded of the trauma. 
  • Panic disorder, in which a person feels sudden, intense and unprovoked feelings of terror and dread.

So how does a person take the big step toward treatment for anxiety disorders if they're anxious about the little steps required to get them there? Often people who need that treatment never seek it, says Scott Sonek, a psychiatric nurse practitioner with Legacy Health System who works with patients at Legacy Emanuel and Good Samaritan hospitals in Portland, Ore.

"Some of these people I will see [with anxiety disorders] have not been out of the house for months or years," says Sonek. "The only reason they're in the hospital is because something medically has happened to them." He recognizes a disorder, he says, when the patient tells him about anxiety that has continued for six months or more, and is seriously, negatively affecting their functioning.

High Anxiety In the case of a generalized anxiety, it's common for a person to attribute their anxiety to their real-life difficulties, such as relationship problems. But the anxiety is actually non-specific, says Sonek. "It's just this general worrying, being anxious about just being alive--daily-living stuff.  It's almost like a background anxiety that won't go away, but that increases as somebody 's life stressers increase." People with generalized anxiety often complain about physical symptoms as well, such as headaches, gastro-intestinal problems and difficulty concentrating.

Understanding Panic DisorderBut trying to ignore the problem is not an option for someone with a panic disorder, who suffers through debilitating episodes on a regular basis--sometimes as frequently as once a week.  Unlike generalized anxiety or phobias, panic attacks are discreet events that have no apparent trigger. Such episodes overwhelm a person at any time or place, and often last for 10 to 15 minutes at a time.

"People say that they feel like they're going to die," Sonek says. "There's this impending doom feeling. A lot of people think that they might be having heart attacks or respiratory failure because they can't breathe. Their heart's racing, they're sweating. They're kind of frozen--a deer in the headlights. They just stand there or sit there and experience it."

A person who suffers from panic attacks, says Sonek, often has other anxiety disorders as well. "With panic disorder, you're always looking to see if there's agoraphobia, which is basically fear of being outside of the house, being in situations you can't escape from. If someone is going to have such an extreme anxiety reaction that comes out of nowhere, there's probably some anxiety existing there already, and it's probably been there for a while."

What You Can DoFor all anxiety disorders, medication--such as an anti-depressant--is ordinarily part of treatment, says Sonek. Patients also engage in personal therapy, or "talk therapy," because that's a place to learn coping skills: what to do when you start to feel anxiety or a panic attack coming on. Patients learn relaxation techniques, such as controlled breathing so they can head off feelings of anxiety, and relax their body before their condition overtakes them.

As a motivator, anxiety is a tool in our emotional arsenal, a powerful sensation that can make us alert and competitive, and focused on doing what we need to do for ourselves. When it begins to work against us, however, that's the time for outside help. Treatment won't eliminate anxiety from a person's life, but it may just bring it into balance.

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