You may be surprised to learn that constant worry and unpleasant, intrusive thoughts aren’t a normal state of mind. Everyone gets anxious now and then, but living with it day in and day out can take a serious toll on your quality of life and interfere with your normal daily activities. Anxiety disorder can lead to substance abuse in an attempt to self-medicate.
Anxiety is among the most common mental disorders. Severe anxiety that lasts more than six months is cause for concern, according to the National Institutes of Health, but the good news is that anxiety disorders are treatable.1 Therapy and medication can help you enjoy your life relatively free of the nagging thoughts and crushing weight of anxiety.
The three most common anxiety disorders are generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and social anxiety disorder.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder
People with generalized anxiety disorder, or GAD, may startle easily, have trouble relaxing, and often find it difficult to concentrate. If you have GAD, you may have trouble falling asleep due to your worries and fears, and you may experience symptoms like fatigue, headaches, twitching, irritability, and breathlessness. If your anxiety is mild, you can probably function at work and in social situations, but if it’s severe, even the simplest activities of daily living may seem insurmountable.
The average age of onset for GAD is 31, and it affects twice as many women as it does men. Symptoms typically progress gradually, usually starting in childhood and reaching critical mass in middle age.
Panic attacks are episodes of extreme fear during which you may feel certain you’re dying. Not everyone who experiences panic attacks will develop panic disorder, but those who do may become disabled by the condition.
Symptoms of panic disorder include sudden and repeated panic attacks that leave you feeling out of control of your mind and body; intense worry about when the next panic attack will occur; avoiding places where you’ve experienced a panic attack, such as crowded places or those high above the ground; and the onset of physical symptoms during an attack. These may include a racing heart, sweating, dizziness, hot or cold chills, chest or stomach pain and trouble breathing.
People with panic disorder may eventually develop agoraphobia, or the fear of open spaces, and one-third of people with panic disorder become housebound.
Social Anxiety Disorder
Also known as a social phobia, social anxiety disorder leads to severe anxiety when you’re around other people. If you have a social phobia, you’re probably very self-conscious in social situations and fear you’re being judged. You may sweat, blush, tremble or feel nauseated in those situations, and you may worry intensely about attending a social event that’s weeks away. In general, you probably avoid social interactions as much as possible, and you may have a hard time making and keeping friends.
Around 15 million Americans suffer from social anxiety disorder, which affects men and women in roughly equal numbers. Social anxiety typically starts in childhood or early adolescence, and it can be limited to specific activities, such as eating in front of others or speaking to a crowd, or it can affect all social interactions outside of family situations.
Treating Anxiety Disorders
Without treatment, anxiety disorders may not get better, and they may even worsen. People with anxiety disorders are at a high risk of drug or alcohol abuse, which may seem to alleviate symptoms for the short-term but almost always worsens anxiety.
The most effective treatment for an anxiety disorder is a combination of psychotherapy and medication. Cognitive-behavioral therapy helps you change your way of thinking and behaving to help you feel less anxious and improve your social skills. Medications used to treat anxiety disorders may include anti-anxiety medications, antidepressants, or, in the case of severe social anxiety disorder, beta-blockers.
Treatment for Drug Abuse or Addiction Co-Occurring with Anxiety
If you have an anxiety disorder and chronically abuse or are addicted to drugs or alcohol, getting help for this “dual diagnosis” is essential for reducing symptoms of anxiety and recovering from the abuse or addiction. When a substance use disorder co-occurs with a mental disorder, integrated treatment that addresses one disorder in the context of the other is essential for successful recovery.
You don’t have to live with anxiety. It may seem like there’s no way you’ll ever be able to overcome those nagging feelings of dread, fear and stress, but millions of people are successfully treated for anxiety disorders every year, vastly improving their quality of life and leading to higher productivity and a fulfilling social life.