Anxious Over Anxiety: The Whats and Whys of Anxiety Disorder
Anxiety has many faces. It's the "butterflies" you feel in your stomach before you give a speech or take a test, the "nervousness" you feel when you know you are about to be bawled out, or the heart palpitations you experience when you are in a threatening situation. Because it puts you on your guard and prepares you for what is to come, a little anxiety can be a good thing. However, when normal anxiety seems to spin out of control, disrupting your daily life, you could be suffering from an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders are illnesses. The origins may be biological or related to one's life experiences. They often run in families. When you have an anxiety disorder, you may feel anxious much of the time, no matter the situation. The feelings of anxiety may be so intense or uncomfortable that you find that you begin to withdraw from activities you would usually find pleasurable or non-threatening. There are a number of types of anxiety disorder, each one with its own symptoms or level of anxiety. They are all highly treatable through the use of therapy, medication or a combination of both.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder
Do you know someone who always seems to be worrying over nothing? This person may have Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). Anything and everything makes them worry, whether it is something reasonable, such as family or health, or something unusual, like terrorism or natural disasters. Unable to relax, people with GAD have trouble sleeping, are restless and feel shaky most of the time. Because they can't relax, they may also have trouble concentrating. GAD is more common in women than men and can start as early as childhood.
Because their symptoms are similar, panic disorder is often mistaken for heart attack. Panic attacks, the main symptom, occur without warning. When an individual suffers such an attack, their heart pounds, their breathing becomes shallow and they may feel dizzy. This is often accompanied by feelings of terror, of losing control or of dying. Fortunately for the sufferer, most attacks last no more than 10 or 15 minutes.
Panic disorder can appear at any age, although it is more likely to begin in young adulthood. Twice as many women as men suffer from it. When left untreated, panic disorders can lead to phobias. If an attack strikes while shopping, you maybe begin to avoid going to the mall or supermarket. If an attack occurs while driving over a bridge, you may start avoiding them or stop driving altogether. At its worst, panic disorder can lead to agoraphobia, or the fear of being unable to return to a safe place or person. When this happens, the sufferer rarely ventures out of the house.
There are many kinds of phobias, or fears. You can be afraid of things, places or situations, e.g., specific animals, flying in a plane or getting an injection. These are known as simple phobias. You may have a fear of being in a social situation, such as a party or a meeting. This is a social phobia. Regardless of the type, a phobia is always an irrational fear. Phobias can start at any time in life and are rather persistent. Some fears that occur in childhood, such as a fear of the dark, are often developmental and dissipate with age. However, those that begin in later years rarely disappear without professional help.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is marked by ritualistic behaviors or repetitive thoughts you feel that you can't control. Some OCD behaviors and thoughts include hand washing, touching things, counting, repeating a phrase or word over and over in your head and visualizing acts of violence. The actions or behaviors are known as compulsions; the thoughts, as obsessions. These compulsions and obsessions are often used by the sufferer to dispel feelings of anxiety. While they bring some relief, they become a problem in themselves when they begin to interfere with normal activity. OCD affects about 1 in 50 people, and men and women equally. It can occur anytime during someone's life. Symptoms may come and go with time or they can grow progressively worse, sometimes impairing an individual's ability to function normally.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Sometimes the horror of a terrifying event doesn't end with the rescue. Quite often, a condition called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) sets in a few months later, with its recurring memories of the ordeal, nightmares and frightening thoughts.
Once called "shell shock," PTSD first came to the public's attention after studies were done on war veterans. War and other traumatic events, such as serious accidents, natural disasters and violent attacks can trigger the disorder. PTSD can affect anyone, at any age.
Whatever the source, PTSD can cause insomnia, depression, emotional distance, edginess or aggression. Many things can trigger PTSD, such as seeing events that remind the sufferer of his or her incident or visiting the place were the incident happened. Anniversaries of the event that caused the disorder are particularly distressing.
The North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System has many programs to help those with anxiety disorders. For more information, call (718) 470-8554 (Phobia Clinic) or (718) 470-8157 (OCD Clinic).