We all have anxiety episodes from time to time. In fact, the anxiety response is naturally hardwired into our brain – which is more commonly referred to as “fight or flight.
Biologically, the fight or flight mechanism is quite fascinating. Here’s how fight or flight works according to Healthline, “In the short term, anxiety increases your breathing rate and heart rate, concentrating the blood flow to your brain, where you need it. This very physical response is preparing you to face an intense situation.”
Fight or flight is necessary to produce the reactions that enable us to react quickly to danger. Have you ever had to perform a 90-degree turn of your steering wheel to avoid hitting a car? That’d be fight or flight in action.
When this response refuses to shut down, however, it can cause an array of mental and physical problems. This condition is known as anxiety disorder, which is present in about 40 million American adults.
“Don’t believe every worried thought you have. Worried thoughts are notoriously inaccurate.” – Renee Jain, MAPP
First, we’ll list the symptoms most commonly experienced in anxiety cases. Second, we’ll cover the multiple types of anxiety, then we’ll get to the potential health complications of anxiety disorders. We’ll also elaborate on some of the treatment options available (including self-help).
Here are common indicators of an anxiety disorder, according to WebMD:
– Panic, fear, and uneasiness
– Sleep problems
– Not being able to stay calm and still
– Cold, sweaty, numb or tingling hands or feet
– Shortness of breath
– Heart palpitations (rapid heartbeat)
– Dry mouth
– Tense muscles
The near-constant state of uneasiness has the potential to disrupt a person’s life. The presence of anxiety, especially in severe cases, “can have a devastating effect on your personal and mental health … (chronic anxiety) can (interfere with) family, career, and social obligations.”
Understanding the problem is the first step to solving it. We’re going to tell you how in the last section.
It’s important to mention the various anxiety conditions for two reasons. (1) Education: with knowledge of the underlying issue, you’ll be in a better position to both understand and explain the problem. (2) Progression: as you’ll see, some types of anxiety have more severe symptoms. These will serve as a baseline by which to measure your progress as you seek to resolve the issue.
Social anxiety disorder, also referred to as social phobia, involves feeling overwhelmed and self-conscious in most, if not all, social environments. People with this condition find themselves obsessing about what others may be thinking of them. They may feel that they’re being judged or critiqued. About 15 million adults suffer from this disorder, per the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA).
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is the second most diagnosed type of anxiety condition. GAD may be the most enigmatic of all anxiety conditions, as the person feels high levels of worry, tension, and distress for no reason. ADAA estimates that GAD affects nearly 7 million people a year. Symptoms generally range from mild to severe.
Panic disorder, regarding physical effects on the body, exceeds those of other anxiety conditions in severity. Panic attacks, defined as “the abrupt onset of fear of discomfort that reaches a peak within minutes,” may feel eerily similar to a heart attack.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) “develops after you’ve witnessed or experienced something traumatic.” Today, we associate PTSD with war – and rightfully so. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that PTSD affects: 31 percent of Vietnam veterans, 10 percent of Gulf War veterans, and 11 percent of veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. PTSD’s psychological symptoms are often severe and include: being easily angered and agitated, insomnia, nightmares, and flashbacks.
Obsessive-Compulsive disorder (OCD) is an anxiety condition that “causes obvious behavioral symptoms such as performing compulsive, repetitive acts.” People with OCD feel an unrelenting urge to perform such acts to (perceptively) elude negative consequences. For example, locking and unlocking the door a certain number of times to prove it’s working.
Aside from the inherent distress caused by various anxiety symptoms, chronic anxiety may result in other health impediments. The underlying cause of health complications from anxiety is the brain’s inability to return to a state of equilibrium – this negatively impacts functionality and stimulates unusual reactions within the body.
Here are some potential complications of chronic anxiety:
– Chronic anxiety increases the risk of chronic respiratory disease or COPD.
– Prolonged stress often manifests into a feeling of overall ill health.
– Some evidence exists that vaccines are less effective in people with anxiety disorders.
– Per Harvard Medical School (HMS), a link may exist between high anxiety levels and the development of irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS.
– Clinical anxiety increases the risk of heart attack. Two studies – one from HMS in collaboration with a cardiovascular research institute, and the other, consisting of several Canadian institutions – concluded “those suffering from an anxiety disorder were twice as likely to have a heart attack as those with no history of anxiety disorders.
– Weakening of the immune system.
(Note from writer: As someone who has struggled with anxiety, here is my advice to anyone going through the same: there is hope. Anxiety is still an overlooked and misunderstood condition; this, despite the fact that it is the most widespread mental health epidemic [along with depression] in the world. An anxiety disorder is not a personal weakness; it is a chemical imbalance in the brain. With the right treatment, you will feel better!)
Most within the medical field will advise someone suffering from anxiety to see a licensed physician. There are certain medications (e.g. anti-anxiety drugs, beta-blockers, and anti-depressants) that are helpful in the short-term. Cognitive or behavioral therapy, along with medication, may be the best course of action, according to many medical professionals.
For those seeking a more natural approach to resolving the problem, certain lifestyle changes can help.
– Exercise: Working out releases feel-good hormones and is an excellent way to alleviate stress and anxiety.
– Meditation/yoga: Mindfulness practices such as meditation and yoga are powerful. Evidence suggests that regular meditation positively alters the brain’s chemistry, which is promising as a potential long-term solution.
– Proper Sleep: 7 to 8 hours of quality sleep is essential for restoring the depleted resources of the brain (and other reasons.) Oversleeping (10+ hours/night) has a counterproductive effect, however.
– A well-balanced diet: Nutrition derived from food is crucial to natural brain function. A mix of whole grains, fruits, vegetables and lean meats are recommended.
– Quit smoking and/or reduce alcohol intake: While either may produce a temporary boost (the result of increased levels of dopamine in the brain), long-term smoking and alcohol abuse carries significant health risks.