Anxiety is a normal part of life. It can even be useful when it alerts us to danger. But for some people, anxiety is a persistent problem that interferes with daily activities such as work, school or sleep. This type of anxiety can disrupt relationships and enjoyment of life, and over time it can lead to health concerns and other problems.
In some cases, anxiety is a diagnosable mental health condition that requires treatment. Generalized anxiety disorder, for example, is characterized by persistent worry about major or minor concerns. Other anxiety disorders — such as panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) — have more specific triggers and symptoms. In some cases, anxiety is caused by a medical condition that needs treatment.
Whatever form of anxiety you have, medications, counseling or lifestyle changes can generally help.
Common anxiety symptoms include:
Specific anxiety disorders are broken down into several diagnosable mental health conditions:
When to see a doctor
Your worries may not go away on their own, and they may actually get worse over time if you don't seek help. See your doctor or a mental health provider before your anxiety gets worse. It may be easier to treat if you address it early.
As with many mental health conditions, the exact cause of anxiety disorders isn't fully understood. It's thought that anxiety disorders may involve an imbalance of naturally occurring brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) such as serotonin, dopamine or norepinephrine. Life experiences such as traumatic events appear to trigger anxiety disorders in people who are already prone to becoming anxious. Inherited traits also are a factor.
Physical problems that can be linked to anxiety include:
It's more likely that your anxiety may be due to an underlying medical condition if:
Things that may increase your risk of developing an anxiety disorder include:
Having an anxiety disorder does more than make you worry. It can also lead to, or worsen, other mental and physical health conditions, including:
Preparing for your appointment
You may start by seeing your family doctor or a general practitioner. However, you may need to see a psychiatrist or psychologist if you have severe anxiety. A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who specializes in diagnosing and treating mental health conditions. A psychologist and certain other mental health providers can diagnose anxiety and provide counseling (psychotherapy).
It may be best for you to start by seeing a medical doctor if you think your anxiety could be health related. A medical doctor will be able to check for signs of an underlying illness that may need diagnosis and treatment.
Because there's often a lot of ground to cover during your initial appointment, it's a good idea to be well prepared. Here's some information to help you get ready, and what to expect from your doctor or mental health provider.
What you can do
Your time with your doctor is limited, so preparing a list of questions will help you make the most of your time. List your questions from most important to least important in case time runs out. Some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
In addition to the questions that you've prepared to ask your doctor, don't hesitate to ask questions during your appointment.
What to expect from your doctor
Tests and diagnosis
To help diagnose an anxiety disorder and rule out other conditions, your doctor or mental health provider may have you fill out a psychological questionnaire. Your doctor will probably do a physical examination to look for signs that your anxiety might be linked to a medical condition.
Anxiety that occurs during times of high stress or in the aftermath a traumatic event is normal. In most cases, the disruption and stress caused by this type of anxiety eases up on its own, when the underlying cause is no longer an immediate concern. However, when anxiety is severe, disrupts your day-to-day life, causes panic attacks or doesn't get better over time, you may have a disorder that needs to be diagnosed and treated.
To be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, you must meet criteria spelled out in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). This manual is published by the American Psychiatric Association and is used by mental health providers to diagnose mental conditions and by insurance companies to reimburse for treatment. Symptoms — and diagnostic criteria — differ for each specific anxiety disorder.
Anxiety disorders often occur along with other mental health problems — such as depression or substance abuse — which can make diagnosis and treatment more challenging.
Treatments and drugs
The two main treatments for anxiety disorders are medications and psychological counseling (psychotherapy). You may benefit most from a combination of the two. It may take some trial and error to discover exactly what treatments work best for you.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is one of the most common types of psychotherapy for anxiety disorders. Generally a short-term treatment, cognitive behavioral therapy focuses on teaching you specific skills to identify negative thoughts and behaviors and replace them with positive ones. Even if an undesirable situation doesn't change, you can reduce stress and gain more control over your life by changing the way you respond.
Lifestyle and home remedies
While most people with anxiety disorders need psychotherapy or medications to get anxiety under control, lifestyle changes also can make a difference. Here are a few things that you can do:
Certain supplements may help relieve anxiety, although it isn't clear how much they help or what possible side effects they might have. Some supplements used to treat anxiety include:
Talk to your doctor before taking herbal remedies or supplements to make sure they're safe for you and won't interact with any medications you take.
Coping and support
To cope with anxiety disorder, here are some things you can do:
There's no way to predict for certain what will cause someone to develop an anxiety disorder in the first place, but you can take steps to reduce the impact of symptoms if you're anxious:
Last Updated: 2010-06-29
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