By Robyn Williams, LPC, Therapist, Catholic Charities
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), anxiety disorders are the most common mental illnesses in America, affecting about 18 to 20 percent of the population. In other words, an estimated 40 million Americans experience a level of anxiety that impairs their relationships or their ability to go about their daily life.
Most of us are aware of the symptoms of anxiety. Physical symptoms can include a racing heartbeat, sweating, dizziness, stomach upset or muscle tension. Mental symptoms can include forgetfulness, difficulty concentrating and worrying. And the emotional symptoms are a feeling of dread, irritability, self-consciousness and fear. Anxiety is a normal human experience and can sometimes even be useful. When we are faced with a stressful situation, the increased adrenaline that anxiety releases can put us on alert and prepare us to deal with a perceived threat effectively.
Anxiety becomes a concern, however, when this sense of danger stretches on indefinitely and wears us out. Or when the threatening situation is blown out of proportion in our minds, and we react too strongly, making mountains out of molehills. When anxiety reaches the level of an anxiety disorder, it causes significant distress to the person experiencing it, interfering extensively with their daily life.
Some common anxiety disorders include:
- Separation Anxiety Disorder, where children or teens experience high levels of anxiety when away from home or separated from parents or loved ones.
- Social Anxiety Disorder, which causes people to avoid social situations due to feeling self-conscious, judged or criticized by others.
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder, where a person feels a sense of dread and an exaggerated level of worry, sometimes without even knowing why.
- Agoraphobia, which is a fear of being in places (such as crowds) where escape might be difficult.
- Panic Disorder, which is marked by panic attacks, a sudden sense of terror that can strike without warning and may even lead a person to believe they are dying.
- Phobias, irrational fears of things that pose no real threat to the individual but can lead to avoidance of objects or situations due to the level of distress the fear causes.
As terrifying as anxiety can be, the good news is that anxiety disorders are very treatable. Some of the methods that have been proven to be the most effective in reducing symptoms of anxiety are simple lifestyle changes that anyone can make. Having a healthy diet, getting enough sleep, and exercising regularly are three basic ways people can bring balance to their lives and improve their ability to cope with anxiety. Other strategies that can help include building supportive relationships, keeping a positive mental attitude, practicing relaxation techniques and addressing issues rather than avoiding them.
For more severe anxiety that meets the definition of an anxiety disorder, a combination of psychotherapy and medication has been shown to be an effective treatment for many. Cognitive behavioral therapies (CBT) are especially helpful in teaching individuals how to change the thinking patterns that contribute to anxiety.
Many of my clients who struggle with anxiety learn to begin to take control of anxiety first by becoming aware of their ‘self-talk’ – what they are telling themselves about a situation either out loud or in their thoughts. Some are shocked to discover how often they are fueling anxiety without even realizing it. Once this awareness exists, they can begin to take an active role in reducing anxiety by catching these thoughts before they can grow and replacing them with a new perspective. Changing these harmful thought patterns takes some time, but with practice many people learn how to gain control over anxiety, rather than feeling that they are at the mercy of its control.
With the correct balance of treatments and carefully choosing their thoughts and behaviors, individuals with anxiety disorders can manage their anxiety and lead productive, fulfilling lives.
For further information on anxiety disorders and other behavioral health concerns, resources and wellness, visit www.csifdl.org.