The purpose of anxiety is survival. When you are in a stressful or dangerous situation, your body begins to react by tightening up. At the same time, you are on high alert as you scan your surroundings for danger. Your heart pounds and your hands get sweaty, and you begin to breathe quickly. Your body is preparing itself to stand and fight or run like the wind.
When people become stressed and worry excessively about the ordinary things in life, such as a test at school or a sick child, their worry occurs nonstop. They are usually diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.
The body and mind can only handle so much stress. It doesn’t distinguish between a real threat, such as being afraid because you hear someone breaking into your house or a perceived threat like wondering if someone may break into your home someday.
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety is a normal feeling inside your body that you get under stress. It is characterized by feelings of apprehension and fear that leave some people incapacitated.
Anxiety in itself is not a problem. A certain amount of anxiety can be helpful by alerting us to potential danger. It’s when you worry too much and about everything that it becomes a problem.
It is estimated that nearly one in five Americans over 18 were diagnosed with an anxiety disorder this past year. Given the global pandemic, it’s easy to understand how stress and anxiety have taken hold of people like never before.
Anxiety becomes a disorder when the symptoms create a situation where a person is so worried that the symptoms make it impossible to function normally in your daily life. Your anxiety is triggered by conditions that are not an actual threat.
Types of Anxiety Disorders
Anxiety disorders are divided into the following, anxiety disorders, obsessive compulsive and related disorders, phobias and trauma, and stressor-related disorders.
- Anxiety disorders – anxiety disorders have the common feature of excessive fear about a future perceived threat. This fear can cause negative behavior and have emotional consequences.
- Obsessive-compulsive and related disorders – these disorders are characterized by obsessive and intrusive thoughts. Meaning they break into your thoughts, causing constant worry, which prompts you to take action such as repeated hand washing.
- Phobias – a particular animal, insect, object or situation causes extreme anxiety.
- Trauma and stressor-related disorders – are anxiety disorders caused by trauma such as the death of a loved one, sexual assault, or other life stressors like moving away or starting college are also common.
Within those categories, several types of anxiety disorders exist:
- Agoraphobia is an anxiety disorder in which you fear places or situations that might cause you to panic and make you feel trapped, helpless, or embarrassed.
- Anxiety disorder due to a medical condition causes symptoms of intense anxiety or panic because of a serious physical health problem.
- Generalized anxiety disorder includes persistent and excessive anxiety and worry about ordinary, routine issues. The worry far exceeds what the actual circumstance should cause. It is difficult to control and affects how you feel physically. It is often diagnosed with another anxiety disorder or depression.
- Panic disorder involves repeated episodes of sudden feelings of intense anxiety and fear or terror that quickly become out of control (panic attacks). You may be fearful for your safety and have shortness of breath, chest pain, or a pounding heart (heart palpitations). These panic attacks often cause the person embarrassment and may lead to them worrying about it happening again or avoiding situations in which it has occurred.
- Selective mutism is when a child refuses to speak in certain situations, such as school, even when they can speak in other cases, such as at home with close family members. This can interfere with school, work and social functioning.
- Separation anxiety disorder is a childhood disorder characterized by excessive anxiety for the child’s developmental level. When the child is separated from the parent, they become agitated and inconsolable
- Social anxiety disorder (social phobia) involves high levels of anxiety, fear and avoidance of social situations due to feelings of embarrassment, self-consciousness and concern about being judged or viewed negatively by others.
- Substance-induced anxiety disorder is characterized by symptoms of intense anxiety or panic that directly result from misusing drugs, taking medications, being exposed to a toxic substance, or withdrawing from drugs.
- Other specified anxiety disorders and unspecified anxiety disorders are terms for anxiety or phobias that don’t meet the exact criteria for any other anxiety disorders but are significant enough to be distressing and disruptive.
Chronic Anxiety Takes a Toll
Your body is designed to adapt to stressors in life, but chronic or constant anxiety will take a toll on your health. When you are anxious, your body produces more cortisol and raises your blood pressure. Over time this will contribute to heart problems, kidney disease and stroke.
In a 2017 Lancet study, participant’s brains were scanned to measure the activity in the amygdala. The amygdala is the response center for danger, and researchers found that greater activity in that area of the brain correlates with a higher risk for heart disease, stroke, and inflammation.
And it isn’t just the body that suffers. Quality of life suffers as well, which often leads to depression and isolation. People fear rejection in social circles and thus avoid being around other people or events that could trigger their anxiety. This disrupts their relationships and work life and causes them to turn down invitations and other activities they would otherwise enjoy.