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When Does Anxiety Turn Into A Disorder?

Welcome to my new blog! My hope is that it will offer an interesting and lively addition to the website. In the coming weeks and months, I’ll use this space to discuss the connections between mental, emotional and physical health, offer additional context and background about illnesses and treatments, consider new research and answer reader questions.

For now, in my initial post, I’d like to start by addressing one of the most common mental health conditions I see in my practice: anxiety disorders. Just how common is it? Studies show that an incredible 30 per cent of North American adults experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives. Anxiety disorders also span every demographic, affecting people of all ages, socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds. Yet despite this prevalence, many myths remain about the sources of, and treatments for, anxiety disorders.

Backing up a little, the dictionary, anxiety is defined as a feeling of worry, nervousness or unease about something with an unknown outcome. This level of anxiety is a normal reaction to stressful situations. In fact, it can be very beneficial. Anxiety can alert us to legitimate dangers, and help us prepare and focus to face serious, even life-threatening challenges.

At times, we’ve all felt nervous, on edge, frightened or worried. These are not enjoyable feelings, but most of us can cope with normal levels of anxiety, and the situations that evoke them. It’s simply part of the human condition to worry about loved ones, jobs, money, or even big world problems like climate change or events as small as whether the Christmas turkey will turn out OK.

This kind of anxiety is intermittent, and is a completely normal response to uncertain events or situations. Some people, however, struggle with feelings of anxiety so intense and intrusive that they cause family, work, and social difficulties. This is when normal, manageable anxiety becomes an anxiety disorder.

Anxiety disorders tend to be chronic, irrational and interfere with day-to-day enjoyment of life. Generally speaking, for a person to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, their fear or anxiety must be out of proportion to the situation (or age inappropriate), and hinder their  ability to function normally.

Excessive anxiety leads to a wide range of cognitive and behavioural symptoms, including:

  • feeling nervous, restless or tense
  • uncontrolled worry
  • irritability
  • having a sense of impending danger, panic or doom
  • trouble concentrating or thinking about anything other than the present worry
  • a powerful urge to avoid things that trigger anxiety

And the physical symptoms of an anxiety disorder can be equally disruptive to social, work and leisure time. They include:

  • restlessness
  • fatigue
  • muscle tension
  • sleep disturbance
  • gastrointestinal problems
  • racing heart

Anxiety disorders fall into several common categories, based on the symptoms and causes, including generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, separation anxiety, OCD, panic disorder and specific phobias.

The causes of anxiety disorders are currently unknown but, as is typical with mental illness and disorders, they likely involve a combination of genetic, environmental, psychological and developmental factors. Anxiety disorders can also run in families, suggesting that a combination of genes and environmental stresses can produce the disorders.

So if you think you have an anxiety disorder, what can you do? Well,

unfortunately, many people with anxiety disorders don’t seek help. Some don’t even realize that they have an illness, some fear the stigma, which is less severe that it used to be, but still lingers. And others don’t realized that mental health professionals can offer a number of effective treatments for anxiety.

So, is my message for those suffering with an anxiety disorder: your  condition is highly treatable, and you don’t have to suffer in silence. If you recognize these symptoms in yourself, please seek help. Mental health professionals have a number of methods for treating anxiety, in particular, various talk therapies, sometimes in combination with pharmacology. Once you recognize that you have an anxiety disorder, the prognosis for recovery is excellent, with most people about to resume a healthy and productive life.

In a future post, I’ll go into more detail about various types of anxiety disorders. And I’ll outline some of the proven methods mental health professionals such as myself use to treat anxiety.

Thanks for reading, and please feel free to reach out with questions about this or other mental health issues.


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