Table of Contents
Anxiety Disorder and Stress
Let us see what anxiety disorder is and how it is related to stress. While they are not the same, there are a lot of similarities between them and, therefore, often we could use the same approaches to deal with them.
Anxiety Disorder vs. Normal Anxiety. What’s the difference?
Each of us could be anxious about something at different times. If you have exams, compete in a sport event, or learning to drive a car, there is a high chance that you feel some anxiety. It is perfectly normal to have worries and anxiety about some problems or life situations with somewhat unknown outcome. Anxiety is just one of stress symptoms. It mobilizes your internal resources when you need them to reach you goal, to protect yourself or to avoid some undesirable situation.
However, anxiety disorder is different. First, it is extreme anxiety. Next, it is improper anxiety, it is overreaction. Actual reasons could be negligible or even absent, but anxiety is severe and could last for long time. In addition, it could be really painful and overwhelming for your body and mind. Finally, it disables you and imposes various limitations on your life.
Anxiety disorder is a mental illness.
Have you noticed any similarities between good stress (eustress) / bad stress (distress) and normal anxiety / anxiety disorder? What is interesting about this disorder? You could have a perfect understanding that your anxiety is completely irrational and yet, you are not able to do anything with this.
Some Facts and Numbers
1. Anxiety disorders affect 40 million of Americans ages 18 and older, which is about 18% of the country population. This is the most widespread mental illness in United States.
2. The medical cost for these disorders is comparable with the cost for the depression, with 54% of the cost associated with non-psychiatric medical care of physical complaints.
3. Anxiety disorders typically affect more women than men (except Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and Social Phobia)
4. Rates of detection of this illness in primary care are low. About 50% of patients with these disorders remain untreated in primary care.
5. These disorders are inheritable. Genetic factors make up 30-40% of risk for the development of the most of the disorders.
Types of Anxiety Disorders
Psychologists identify the following types of anxiety disorders:
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Panic disorder and Agoraphobia
- Social Phobia
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Specific phobias
Let us take a look at them…
Generalized Anxiety Disorder
People with generalized anxiety disorder have constant and excessive worries about possible health, work, financial, relationship problem, etc. What is important is that there are no serous reasons for this anxiety. However, it could go on day after day for months or even years. Such anxiety could make someone really miserable. From physiological perspective, This disorder is similar to so-called “fight-or-flight” response that fails to shut down. Alcohol, drugs, and smoking significantly affects the development of this disorder .
In the case of obsessive-compulsive disorder, people can not get rid of repetitive and unwanted thoughts (obsessions). Most common thoughts are about germs and toxins, cancer, dirt, safety, proper order and symmetry of different things, unwanted sexual activity or images, and fears of hurting loved ones.
In order to calm themselves, people with this disorder create some special rituals repeating again and again one and the same action (compulsions). Typical obsessions are washing hands multiple times, cleaning the house, locking and re-locking doors, rearranging and touching different things, and various mental exercises in order to suppress “bad” thoughts with “good” thoughts. However, while these rituals take a lot of time and interfere with everyday life, they give only minor temporary relief.
Panic disorder and Agoraphobia
Panic disorder causes extreme fears and panic attacks with no appropriate external reasons. The fears are so intense that causes shortness of breath, rapid or irregular heartbeat, chest pain, trembling and shaking, and upset stomach. People feel that something really terrible is happening and lose control completely. They feel as if they are going to die or go crazy. Panic attacks could occur unexpectedly and even during sleep.
In about 30% of cases, Panic disorder results in Agoraphobia when people are afraid to leave home and go to public places where it could be difficult for them to get help during possible panic attack. This anxiety makes them stay in some selected special zones and routes, and over the time they are not able to leave them without experiencing severe stress.
Social phobia could be called abnormal shyness. People with this disorder have severe fears and anxiety about different things that could go wrong during various social interactions. They are afraid to be in the center of someone’s attention and feel themselves horrible because of hypothetical disapproval by others.
Examples of these social situations include public speaking, participating in sport events, dating, making reports for supervisors, talking to a sales person, etc. Social phobia could be general and connected to multiple social situations or it could be restricted to some specific events only, e.g., public speaking.
During undesirable social interactions and communication, people with social phobia have strong stress. Their typical reactions are blushing, sweating, increased heart beat, trembling, headaches, and stomach problems.
Post-traumatic Stress Disorder
When people have post-traumatic stress disorder, they relive and re-experience again and again some life-threatening events from their past. These events could be natural or technological catastrophes, war, sudden death of a loved one, child abuse, rape, torture, and other situation where a person witnessed physical or emotional harm.
The recollections of these past traumatic events are called flashbacks. Flashbacks could happen during a day or at night in dreams. Flashbacks may seem so real that a person with post traumatic stress disorder could decide that everything takes place in his or her current life.
People with post traumatic stress disorder try to avoid everything what could be connected to the traumatic event. They lose interest to their past activities, no longer enjoy social communication and often feel embarrassment and anger.
Specific phobias are abnormal and irrational fear about some objects and situations that are not considered dangerous by other people. The phobias may be associated with heights, bridges, enclosed spaces like caves or tunnels, animals, insects, riding on a car, or flying a plane, seeing blood, etc.
When people with specific phobias find themselves in undesirable situations or face undesirable objects they experience severe anxiety or panic attack. What is interesting is that these phobias could be really very specific. For example, a person with some specific height phobia could be unable to use stairs or an elevator but could be totally fine when flying a plane.
Connection between Stress and Anxiety Disorders
Many anxiety disorders could be triggered or worsened by acute or chronic stress. What is really interesting is that we could look at these disorders as internal stress causes! Think about this. For a number of these disorders, there are no external objective reasons for anxiety at the time when it develops. In other words, there is a stress response, but there are no external causes, only internal ones.
Even if we consider 30-40% risk associated with genetic factors, there is still a lot of room for other causes.