Most people experience feelings of anxiety before an important event such as a big exam, business presentation, or first date. According to the Anxiety Disorders Association of America (ADAA), anxiety disorders are illnesses that fill the lives of people with overwhelming anxiety and fear that is chronic, unremitting, and can grow progressively worse.
Anxiety disorders, as a group are the most common mental illness in America. About 40 million American adults, children and adolescents are affected by these debilitating illnesses each year. Tormented by panic attacks, obsessive thoughts, flashbacks of traumatic events, nightmares, or countless frightening physical symptoms, some people with anxiety disorders even become housebound.
Anxiety disorders appear to have biological causes which are characterized by unrealistic, unfounded fear and include, panic disorders, generalized anxiety disorders, and social anxiety disorders. Many of our psychologists believe that the cause for disorders lie in a combination of a genetic predisposition, mixed with environmental and social causes. Neuroscientists believe that a neurotransmitter-receptor abnormality in the brain plays a significant part in the disorder development.
Neurotransmitters, such as norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin are thought to be the culprits, and when released in the brain can cause of a variety of mental illnesses. One physiological explanation is that many fears may have originally been important for the survival of the human species thousands of years ago and lie dormant inside our brains, just waiting for the right moment at any time.
An anxiety disorder hereditary component, includes panic attacks triggered in people with a history of panic disorders by a variety of treatments that activate the autonomic nervous system, such as injections of lactic acid, doxapram, or breathing air containing an elevated amount of carbon dioxide. Further indications are the presence of one or two short alleles of the promoter region of the serotonin transporter (5-HTT) gene, which is associated with increased emotionality and susceptibility to depression, and higher levels of anxiety.
In addition, functional imaging studies indicate that the amygdala and the cingulate, prefrontal, and insular cortices are also involved in anxiety disorders. The development of anxiety is often associated with danger to things and situations that cannot be prevented or controlled, such as lightning strikes during a storm, or the attack of a dangerous animal.
In this sense, patients who have clinically-established panic disorder, often end-up developing phobia to their own crisis, because they feel totally helpless in controlling it. In consequence, they start avoiding going to or staying in places or situations where they might become publicly embarrassed or unable to escape, due to the onset of the crisis.
Although obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) has different symptoms than most disorders in this category, and involves a different region of the brain, it is traditionally classified as an anxiety disorder. There is also evidence that suggests that OCD has a genetic origin and tends to run in families. New research illuminates the actual genetic factors that may contribute to the challenging and potentially disabling condition.
While scientists continue to believe that no one gene causes OCD, Nauert (2006), researchers have discovered a particular gene that is believed to play a major role responsible for the onset and development of OCD. Panic disorders are identified as repeated episodes of intense fear that strike often and without warning which include chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, dizziness, abdominal distress, feelings of unreality, and fear of dying.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is exemplified by constant, exaggerated worrisome thoughts and tension about everyday routine life events and activities, lasting at least six months. The symptoms are almost always anticipation of the worst, even though there is little reason to expect it, accompanied by physical symptoms, such as fatigue, trembling, muscle tension, headache, or nausea.
Social Anxiety Disorder denotes an excessive fear of being exposed to the scrutiny of other people that leads to avoidance of social situations in which the person is called on to perform, such as speaking or performing in public
These phobias can be two major types: social phobia and specific phobia.Those who exhibit social phobia have an overwhelming and disabling fear of scrutiny, embarrassment, or humiliation in social situations, which leads to avoidance of many potentially pleasurable and meaningful activities. People with specific phobia experience extreme, disabling, and irrational fear of something that poses little or no actual danger; the fear leads to avoidance of objects or situations and can cause people to limit their lives unnecessarily.
Anxiety Disorders interfere
An anxiety disorder characterized by recurrent, unwanted thoughts, obsessions and/or repetitive behavior-compulsions. Repetitive behaviors such as hand washing, counting, checking, or cleaning are often performed with the hope of preventing obsessive thoughts or making them go away. Performing these so-called rituals however, provides only temporary relief, and not performing them markedly increases anxiety.
Anxiety disorders can interfere with one’s ability to work, socialize, and go about a daily routine. People who have phobias are often so overwhelmed by their anxiety that they avoid the feared objects or situations. For most people, the simple pleasures of life are striped from them.
The feeling of panic, dread, horror, or terror, goes beyond normal boundaries and the actual threat of danger are automatic and uncontrollable, and practically take over the person’s thoughts causing shortness of breath, trembling, and an overwhelming desire to flee the situation. These extreme measures to avoid the feared object or situation can all be overcome.
Research supported by the National Institute of Mental Health
There are many effective treatments that can help with anxiety disorders. A combination of medication and specific types of psychotherapy is generally prescribed. Helping those who suffer from disorders by supportively and gradually exposing them to circumstances that are increasingly close to the one they are phobic about, is using a method called desensitization and is one way phobias are treated.
A second method is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which has been found to significantly decrease phobic symptoms by helping the phobia sufferer change his or her way of thinking. A number of medications that were originally approved for treating depression have now been found to be effective for anxiety disorders.
Some of the newest of these antidepressants are called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Other anti-anxiety medications include groups of drugs called benzodiazepines and beta-blockers. New medications are currently under development to treat anxiety disorders. If one solution is not effective, others can be tried.