By Karon Warren
In today's busy world, everyone deals with stress. Family, work, friends, life – these all contribute to the organized chaos we face on a daily basis. And when it comes to coping with those stressors, we all experience some level of anxiety. Maybe we lose some sleep, our minds race with worry, or we don't finish dinner because our stomachs are in knots.
But for some people – approximately 40 million Americans, according to the National Institute of Mental Health – anxiety is more than just temporary, reasonable worry. Sometimes worry spirals into trembling hands, a racing heart, nausea, trouble catching a breath and more. If that sounds like you or someone you know, an anxiety disorder may be the culprit.
More Than Worry
When dealing with possible anxiety disorders, it's crucial to know exactly how anxiety is defined. "Anxiety can be described as a feeling of dread, impending doom or excessive worry," says Shannon O'Brien, MS, LAPC, NCC, of The Anxiety & Stress Management Institute in Marietta. "Anxiety, at its core, is a natural and normal bodily response to a potential threat." A potential threat could be something as simple as public speaking or a fear of spiders, but for someone with an anxiety disorder, the natural response to those situations escalates to uncontrollable heights. Sometimes an anxiety response can be provoked by something not typically threatening at all, such as a trip to the grocery store or sitting in a classroom.
Symptoms of anxiety include physical responses like trembling hands, sweating, tense muscles, shortness of breath and increased heart rate, among others. Mental responses could include feeling nervous, fear, dread and panic. People without anxiety disorders can often reason their way through these feelings, and the symptoms resolve within a short period of time. For those suffering from anxiety disorders, however, these and other symptoms can become crippling.
"When [anxiety] starts to dominate your life, that's when it becomes an anxiety disorder," says Dr. Nadine Kaslow, chief psychologist at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta. Essentially, anxiety becomes a disorder when a person has difficulty concentrating, starts to isolate himself, avoids certain situations and can't sleep, among other interfering behaviors.
"In order to warrant a diagnosis of an anxiety disorder, symptoms of anxiety must be present for at least six months," O'Brien says. Diagnosis may come in several classifications: generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, social anxiety disorder and illness anxiety disorder, among others, O'Brien adds. The root cause of these disorders is not always clear. According to Dr. Angelo Sambunaris of The Institute for Advanced Medical Research, "Scientists currently think that, like heart disease or Type 1 diabetes, mental illnesses probably result from a combination of genetic, environmental, psychological and developmental factors." That means a solution may not be one simple fix.
A Therapeutic Approach
When struggling with anxiety, it's important first to see your primary care physician to determine if the anxiety is a result of a physical condition such as heart disease, diabetes or even a thyroid problem. Once those possible causes are ruled out, the next common step is therapy, which involves talking with a trained professional to resolve specific problems that trigger anxiety. Dr. Thomas Burns, board-certified clinical psychologist with Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, explains that therapy helps you examine fears or cognitive distortions that may be triggering your anxiety. Together with the therapist, you work to resolve or eliminate those thoughts.
Hypnosis is another treatment that can help alleviate anxiety. "The reason it works well is because [anxiety issues] are brought on by the subconscious mind," says Valerie Cobbin, master hypnotherapist with Brighter Tomorrow Hypnotherapy in Atlanta. "I reprogram the subconscious to deal with those issues to eliminate the anxiety."
Cope with Combinations
Medications also can be effective in treating anxiety, particularly when symptoms such as nausea or panic are so bad that you cannot get to the root of the problem. Dr. Dave Davis, medical director of Piedmont Psychiatric Clinic in Atlanta, says, "If [anxiety symptoms] get really bad, I give medicine to decrease symptoms while working on coping skills." He adds, "You should never just treat with medicine," instead advising a combination of any necessary medication with other available therapies.
Also, O'Brien recommends examining your lifestyle to see if changes are warranted, such as cutting out caffeine and exercising regularly. While diet and exercise improvements alone will not fully address an anxiety disorder, they can give an even better chance for overall success when combined with medication and therapy.
Along with effective treatments, people struggling with anxiety need a strong support system. If you're parenting one of the eight percent of American teens struggling with anxiety, learn how to approach their condition constructively. "Don't be negative or see anxiety as a weakness," Burns says, because it truly isn't. Kaslow clarifies, "It's a neurochemical issue." Unfortunately, only 18 percent of anxious teens receive mental health care, but that seems to be changing. Dr. Sambunaris says, "As science has advanced and we better understand these diseases and treatments, parents are getting help for their children more quickly."
This compassionate approach will make you a great support for anyone in your life struggling with anxiety, and if you yourself are looking for that support, don't stop until you find it. Whether it's from a therapist, a family member, a friend or a partner, you deserve a support system that can sympathize with your situation and stand alongside you as you work through it.
Don't hesitate to get help if anxiety is interfering with your day-to-day life. "A person might seek help at any stage of experiencing anxiety," O'Brien encourages, and these days, more and more people are doing just that. "Mental illness is slowly shedding its stigma, which means more people are getting the treatment they need," O'Brien says. And with a diagnosis and treatment plan in place, you are well on your way to successfully overcoming anxiety.
Thomas Burns, PsyD, Children's Healthcare of Atlanta – choa.org
Valerie Cobbin, Brighter Tomorrow Hypnotherapy – brightertomorrowhypnotherapy.com
Dave Davis, MD, Piedmont Psychiatric Clinic – piedmontpsychiatricclinic.com
Nadine Kaslow, PhD, Grady Memorial Hospital – gradyhealth.org
National Institute of Mental Health – nimh.nih.gov
Shannon O'Brien, MS, LAPC, NCC, The Anxiety & Stress Management Institute – stressmgt.net
Angelo Sambunaris, MD, Institute for Advanced Medical Research – iamresearch.org