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Anxiety Disorders



In this condition factsheet:


The Facts on Anxiety Disorders

Everyone experiences anxiety from time to time as a result of a situation that we perceive as threatening, such as having to do an oral presentation, having a near-miss with a car, or waiting for the results of a lab test.

Some level of anxiety can even be helpful. Anxiety can help people deal with a threatening situation, study harder for an exam, and perform better in sports. Anxiety is not necessarily harmful and usually only lasts a short period of time.

But when anxiety becomes persistent and interferes with the ability to cope and disrupts daily life, the person may have an anxiety disorder. There are several types of anxiety disorders. They include:

  • panic attack or panic disorder (sudden anxiety that occurs without warning) with or without agoraphobia (avoiding specific situations, such as public places or places where crowds gather, from which they can't easily escape)
  • specific phobias (many types of intense fear reactions of specific objects or situations, such as fear of spiders, flying, or heights)
  • social anxiety or social phobia (fear of being embarrassed in social situations)
  • generalized anxiety disorder (general feeling of anxiety most of the time)
  • obsessive-compulsive disorder (unwanted thoughts or behaviours that are repetitive and unnecessary)
  • post-traumatic stress disorder (anxiety associated with and occurring after a stressful life event)

Anxiety disorders often occur together with other medical conditions, such as depression, eating disorders, or substance use problems.

Anxiety disorders are the most common of all mental disorders. About 1 out of every 4 adults has an anxiety disorder sometime in their life and about 1 out of every 10 people currently has an anxiety disorder. They are more common in women and can affect children and adults.

Many people misunderstand these disorders and think they can get over them on their own (i.e., without treatment). This is usually not the case. Fortunately, there are many treatments available today to help.

Certain portions of this content are made possible by Novartis.

Causes of Anxiety Disorders

Although researchers don't know exactly why some people experience anxiety disorders, they do know that there are various factors involved. Like many other mental health conditions, anxiety disorders seem to be a result of a combination of biological, psychological, and other individual factors.

How we think and react to certain situations can affect anxiety. Some people may perceive certain situations to be more dangerous than they actually are (e.g., fear of flying). Others may have had a bad experience and they fear this will happen again (e.g., a dog bite). Some psychologists believe that childhood experiences can also contribute to anxiety.

Researchers know that problems with brain chemistry can contribute to the development of anxiety disorders. Certain neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) in the brain involved in anxiety include serotonin, norepinephrine, and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). Researchers have also shown that changes in activity in certain areas of the brain are involved in anxiety. Many anxiety disorders run in families and likely have a genetic cause.

Certain medical conditions such as anemia and thyroid problems can also cause symptoms of anxiety. As well, other factors such as caffeine, alcohol, and certain medications can cause anxiety symptoms.

Traumatic life events such as the death of a family member, witnessing a death, war, and natural disasters such as hurricanes and earthquakes may trigger anxiety disorders.

Symptoms and Complications of Anxiety Disorders

Many symptoms of anxiety are common to all types of anxiety disorders. Other symptoms are more specific to a certain type of anxiety disorder. Listed below are some of the most common symptoms associated with each type of anxiety disorder.

  • Panic attack or panic disorder involves sudden anxiety that occurs without warning. Symptoms can include chest pain, heart palpitations, sweating, shortness of breath, feeling of unreality, trembling, dizziness, nausea, hot flashes or chills, a feeling of losing control, or a fear of dying. Panic attacks are extremely common - 10% to 20% of the population experience a panic attack at some point in their life. Some people start to avoid situations that might trigger a panic attack; this is called panic attack with agoraphobia. A panic attack usually lasts 10 minutes or less, but it can last longer. Panic disorder is much less common. Panic disorder refers to recurring feelings of terror and fear, which come on unpredictably without any clear trigger.
  • Phobias involve a fear of something specific, such as an animal, storms, heights, or flying. Symptoms can include sweating, muscle tension, and dizziness. People may also go to extremes to avoid the situation they fear.
  • Social anxiety, also known as social phobia, involves excessive anxiety in social situations where people fear being embarrassed or made fun of. Situations that can trigger social anxiety include small group discussions, dating, going to a party, and playing sports. Common symptoms of social anxiety include blushing, sweating, and dry mouth. People with social phobia often avoid social situations that cause anxiety.
  • Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is associated with continual excessive anxiety and worry about a number of things (e.g., work, money, children, and health). There is no specific source of fear. Symptoms can include muscle tension, trembling, shortness of breath, fast heartbeat, dizziness, dry mouth, nausea, sleeping problems, and poor concentration.
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) involves recurring unpleasant thoughts (obsessions) and/or repetitive behaviours (compulsions). The thoughts may be connected to the repetitive behaviours. For example, people who fear getting an infection may constantly wash their hands. At times, however, there's no connection at all between the thoughts and the behaviours.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is associated with extreme anxiety that appears after a traumatic experience. Symptoms usually start within 3 months of the traumatic event but may take years to start. PTSD can be associated with sleep problems, nightmares, irritability, and anger. Feelings of guilt and unworthiness are common with PTSD. Traumatic experiences that can trigger PTSD include wars, plane crashes, natural disasters (e.g., hurricane, earthquake), and violent crimes (e.g., rape, abuse).

Complications of anxiety disorders are mostly linked to feelings of inadequacy or depression, because people with these conditions know their behaviour is irrational and damaging to their lives. Depression is particularly common with anxiety disorders.



 

Depression Symptom Checker Tool

The Depression Symptom Checker tool can help you learn about depression. Use this tool to create a list of your symptoms and rate how much the symptoms impact your life on a daily basis. The checklist is divided into 6 symptom categories that are associated with depression. You can also learn more about symptoms of depression here.

For each statement choose a number from 0 to 4 that describes the impact on your daily life, where 4 has the highest impact and 0 has no impact:

  • 0 = no impact on daily life/no symptoms
  • 1 = mild impact on daily life
  • 2 = moderate impact on daily life
  • 3 = severe impact on daily life
  • 4 = debilitating impact on daily life

It is important to remember that this is not a “score” but a way to help you communicate how much you feel the symptom impacts your daily life. When you finish you will be able to print out your symptoms and share this information with your doctor. Use the Doctor Discussion Guide to prepare for your doctor’s visit.

Rate how much the following symptoms apply to you.

1. Emotions

Depression can affect anyone at any age, although it most commonly appears between 15 and 45 years of age.

0 1 2 3 4
0 1 2 3 4
0 1 2 3 4
0 1 2 3 4

Visit your doctor with these results, when booking your appointment inform your doctor that you may need extra time to discuss these matters. Getting help for your depression can change your life. Don’t wait- depression is an illness that can, and should be treated.

Thoughts about death or suicide are common in depression, and it’s important to take such thoughts seriously. If you feel like giving up or as if you might hurt yourself, get help immediately: call your doctor, go to the emergency room or call 911.

This tool is adapted with permission from similar content found on www.depressionhurts.ca.

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