Understanding Anxiety: Trying To Dispel The Worries Behind The Disorder

2009-12-18 | |
Last updated: 2009-12-18

When we face stress and uncertainty, some level of anxiety is the normal response experienced by our mind and bodies. The uneasy feelings, worry and fear are definitely very unpleasant, but usually prompt us to take action in order to try to change the situation and resolve the feelings. At a minimum, when anxiety is doing its job, most of us will learn to cope a little better with such situations in order to better handle them in the future.

However, anxiety does not always do its job correctly and for some, the worry and unease can become intrusive to such a level that it can affect a person’s daily life. In such situations, a person is said to have an anxiety disorder.

The major types of anxiety disorder that individuals may experience and the percentage of those with a particular type of anxiety is listed below:

  • Social Phobia – 38%
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – 20%
  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) – 17%
  • Panic Disorder – 15%
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) – 5%

Generally the names of these anxiety disorders are straightforward and self descriptive. In each case, anxiety is being experienced but for different reasons and at different intensities.

Though there are well known mental effects of anxiety, anxiety also has physical effects on the body, as it is responsible for activation of a “fight or flight” response. These effects include all those that one would expect when adrenaline is active in the system such as increased heart rate, increased blood flow to the muscles and an opening up of the air passages to allow more oxygen to be absorbed. Over a longer term however, the effects will include fatigue, nausea and stomach aches, shortness of breath, headaches and even chest pain.

Unfortunately, many people suffer these symptoms as a result of anxiety. In fact, roughly 12-14% of the population or between one in 1 in 7 or 8 people are affected by one or more of the various forms of anxiety disorders. In countries like Australia, Canada, and the US, that means the number of people affected is 3.1 million, 4 million and 40 million respectively.

With all of these people affected, there is also an economic cost for society. In the US, this has been estimated based on different studies at between 42 and 46 billion dollars US based on non-psychiatric medical costs, psychiatric costs and lost work productivity. To health care systems, anxiety sufferers cost more than double that of other patients even when other medical conditions are taken into account. Clearly, anxiety is difficult both on individuals and society.

So what causes anxiety disorders? Based on research, anxiety disorders are the result of both genetic and learned behaviors. In 2008, researchers at the Academy of Finland found a relation between the existence of certain genes and anxious behavior in patients. Subsequent study at the University of Pennsylvania School Of Medicine has also found that that the same genes responsible for anxiety are related to insomnia and depression. The result is that these conditions may all play on one another at the expense of the sufferer.

Furthermore, analysis of the brains of those suffering with anxiety disorder has found measurable differences in their operation as compared to the brains of those without anxiety disorders. Scientists at Stanford University School of Medicine, using medical imaging tools, identified that in anxiety sufferers, the brain area responsible for memory, emotion and fear processing was less connected to the area of brain that determines the importance of information. The researchers suggest that this might mean those with anxiety disorders have a more difficult time determining which information is important and may worry over details that others would not.

In terms of learned behavior, stress and a lack of coping skills can trigger anxiety disorders in those with the affected genes. Under normal circumstances, the children of parents with anxiety disorder have 7 times the chance of developing anxiety themselves. However, researchers at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center have found, in a small study, that providing behavioral therapy to the children of people having anxiety disorders can prevent the children from developing anxiety. This strongly suggests that anxiety is learned but that it need not be.

More importantly for those already suffering with anxiety, this information suggests that, though it may be very difficult, coping strategies can be learned to help eliminate anxiety and allow sufferers to gain control of their lives. Toward this goal, a study at American University using meditation techniques to reduce high blood pressure in student found that these approaches reduced blood pressure by a significant 5% and also reduced stress. Given that stress is a key contributor to the development of anxiety, the study shows that patients can gain control over anxiety.

Though anxiety can seem to be an insurmountable problem for some, research is beginning to uncover more about what causes it and what patients can control. While we are not there yet, the knowledge gained so far certainly has the potential to lead to more sophisticated coping techniques as well as drugs that do more than simply sedate those suffering from anxiety. For those suffering the disabling effects of anxiety, such advances cannot come soon enough.

Are you or have you suffered from anxiety? Is it something you have gained control over or are still fighting? Share your experiences in the anxiety forums.

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