Anxiety: America’s Next Great Epidemic?
Anxiety is one of the fastest growing mental illnesses affecting the U.S. and Canadian populations and the numbers don’t appear to be slowing. In fact, the number of reported cases of anxiety disorders has risen an astounding 1,200 percent since 1980. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America reports that 40 million people over the age of 18 have been diagnosed with anxiety. That number represents 18 percent of the U.S. population, and it doesn’t even include the number of young people suffering from anxiety, which is also rising. In addition, the Anxiety Disorders Association of Canada reports that 12 percent of all Canadians suffer from anxiety disorders. These increases may be due in part to our greater understanding of the breadth of anxiety disorders and the harm that even mild anxiety can cause if prolonged over extended periods. However, it also emphasizes the significant role that stress management will play in the future of medicine.
Anxiety is an emotional state characterized by worried thoughts and tension. Anxiety itself isn’t actually bad. In fact, it’s a basic human response that is part of our natural defenses. In a normally functioning individual, anxiety is part of the fight or flight mechanism that lets us know when danger is near. However, in extreme forms, anxiety becomes so prevalent that it interrupts daily life. When this occurs, individuals suffer from one of the recognized anxiety disorders. According to WebMD, some of the most common disorders prevalent today are panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, individual phobias and generalized anxiety disorder. It is this last disorder that is most concerning because of its prevalence and diverse causes.
Making the Diagnosis
A diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) typically requires that the three following conditions be met on more days than not:
- Excessive worry over multiple events or issues that lasts for six months
- Inability to control worry
- Exhibiting three of the following symptoms: sleeping issues, fatigue, irritability, restlessness, muscle tension and difficulty concentrating
However, even those who aren’t diagnosed with GAD can have anxiety levels high enough to cause detrimental damage in their personal and professional lives. This is why it’s imperative to raise awareness of anxiety symptoms and the effective treatment options.
Symptoms Vary Among Individuals
Anxiety is often accompanied by a number of physical symptoms as well emotional ones. Some of the more common symptoms include insomnia, rapid heartbeat and muscle pain. In some cases, extremely stressed individuals experience chest pain and arm numbness, leading them to think they are having a heart attack or a stroke. Other symptoms which may occur during times of high anxiety are:
- Feelings of panic and fear
- Cold, sweaty hands or feet
- Difficulty breathing
- Heart palpitations
- Dry mouth
- Numbness or tingling in the hands or feet
- Muscle tension
Although medical professionals are able to identify anxiety triggers, they have not yet identified concrete causes of anxiety. Most appear to be a combination of chemical changes in the brain and environmental stressors. Some of these environmental stressors that can lead to high levels of anxiety include:
- Serious life events like the death of a loved one or a divorce
- Problems in personal relationships, marriage or close friendships
- Work stress
- Financial stress
Genetic and Medical Links to Anxiety
There are also significant studies that show anxiety disorders may have a genetic link, as they often run in families. Other studies show a medical link to anxiety disorders. Those who have abnormal levels of certain brain neurotransmitters are more likely to have an anxiety disorder. This occurs when the neurotransmitters don’t function correctly, causing the brain’s communication system to break down.
Negative Self-Coping Mechanisms
Those suffering from debilitating anxiety often utilize negative self-coping mechanism that can actually make things worse. Some choose to ignore the problems causing the anxiety, like financial woes. This leads to a heightened anxiety as the underlying issue continues to get worse. These individuals often become moody, which alienates them from their spouses and loves ones. Others turn to drugs, alcohol, nicotine, caffeine and even overeating to help deal with their anxiety levels. These lead to other physical ailments that only compound anxiety levels.
Positive Coping Mechanisms
Individuals who suffer from less severe generalized anxiety disorders can often cope effectively with symptoms by utilizing a variety of behavioral and relaxation techniques. Here is a list of coping mechanisms that help relieve the effects of anxiety and prevent it from becoming overwhelming.
- Increase Physical Activity– Daily exercise is one of the best ways to relieve the effects of stress and prevent it from coming back. Physical activity need not be strenuous to obtain benefits. Even mild exercises, such as yoga, have a significant impact in lowering stress levels.
- Take a Break – When anxiety hits, stop and take a time out. Listen to soothing music, meditate or practice relaxation techniques. One effective technique that be done anywhere is counting slowly to 10 while inhaling and exhaling in between each number. Concentrate on clearing the mind and focusing only on breathing to rid the mind of anxious thoughts.
- Maintain a Healthy Diet– Diet plays a crucial role in maintaining proper psychological as well as physical health. Reduce or eliminate the consumption of caffeine and alcohol which can make anxiety worse. In addition, limit sodium intake and focus on eating a well-balanced meal of fruits and vegetables.
- Start a Journal– Identifying the circumstances that create anxiety can be done by starting a journal. Individuals should write down how they feel at various points throughout the day and what events or activities and locations they are at. Once they have several weeks of entries, they should analyze them to determine what causes the most anxiety. This can help them avoid or prepare for them better in the future. In addition, simply getting stressful thoughts on paper serves as a healthy way to release them.
- Create a Distraction– When anxious thoughts occur, they tend to build on each other snowballing until an individual is overwhelmed. Take a pro-active approach to stopping negative thoughts when they occur by creating a distraction. This can be as simple as calling a friend, talking a walk outside, watching a movie or tackling a project around the house. These activities cause individuals to stop dwelling on negative thoughts.
- Create Positive Memories– Another effective technique is to replace anxious thoughts with positive ones. Individuals should make a list of activities that they love to do, whether they are a sport, game, cooking, shopping, reading, etc. Include places that you would like to go like a new restaurant, the local art museum or zoo. Whenever anxious thoughts take over, stop and do one of these things. They create positive memories that help push out the negative ones.
Professional Treatment Options for Anxiety
Many of the above coping mechanisms can help individuals keep anxiety at manageable levels. However, those who still struggle with overwhelming anxiety often need professional help to fully overcome the negative thoughts that invade their lives. Left untreated, severe anxiety can develop into other issues like excessive drinking, drug use or depression. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is highly effective in treating patients with anxiety disorders and improving mental health. It helps patents both identify and manage the triggers of anxiety. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy is another very effective option that goes right to the root causes of low self-esteem. It also effectively promotes deep healing at a fast rate.
Janel Ball, MA, RCC