By Lea Rittenhouse
Thoughts of danger, sweating, worry and avoiding situations are just a few typical symptoms of anxiety, a disorder prominent in American culture.
The elicited emotion of anxiety is a normal reaction to various situational triggers, but there is a point where the symptoms form a disorder and may need to be treated.
“Anybody can be anxious in any situation, but if it begins to affect your ability to deal with others and your ability to work, then it might be a time to visit somebody about it,” says Dr. Dennis Combs, associate professor of psychology at The University of Texas at Tyler.
Dr. Combs is also a licensed psychologist and has a private practice in Tyler.
If the attributes of anxiety occur excessively in an otherwise healthy person, Dr. Combs says some people benefit from engaging in exercise, relaxation techniques, distractions or attempting to avert the focus from worrying.
“Anything involved with healthy lifestyles generally helps with anxiety,” he says. “One of the things that I’ve suggested to people is to have a worry time, where they set aside 10-15 minutes a day to worry about whatever’s on their mind, and then once that times over, they move on and deal with their life.”
There are people, however, who don’t benefit from the above preventative techniques and find themselves with impaired functioning because of anxiety —those with anxiety disorders. Dr. Combs says treatment and or medication is the next avenue to pursue in attempts to control or manage the condition.
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting 18 percent of the population over the age of 18—about 40 million people.
The symptoms are examined from three different angles: physical, cognitive and behavioral affects.
Common physical symptoms include: increased heart rate, sweating, rapid breathing, trembling and shaking. Cognitive symptoms include: thoughts of danger, losing thoughts or the inability to think and concentrate. Fear, panic, worry and concern are also emotional-cognitive reactions. Common behavioral symptoms include: avoidance and attempting to escape the situation.
Dr. Combs says the most common anxiety disorders are phobias, both specific and social, Panic Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and Post-Dramatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
A specific phobia is an intense, irrational fear of something the poses little or no actual danger. Some of the more common specific phobias are centered around closed-in places, heights, escalators, tunnels, highway driving, water, flying, dogs and injuries involving blood, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. These phobias aren’t extreme fears, just irrational fears.
“Phobias are by far the most common fear,” Dr. Combs says.
A social phobia is a strong fear of being judged by others and being embarrassed. Many people deal with these issues, but those with social phobias begin worrying about the situations weeks before they happen, according to NIMH. This phobia is equally common in men and women.
Panic disorder is characterized by sudden attacks of terror, usually accompanied by a pounding heart, sweatiness, weakness, faintness, or dizziness. During these attacks, people with panic disorder may flush or feel chilled, their hands may tingle or feel numb and they may experience nausea, chest pain, or smothering sensations, according to NIMH. Panic attacks typically produce a sense of unreality, a fear of impending doom, or a fear of losing control. Women are twice as likely to be affected than men.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder
People with GAD go through the day filled with exaggerated worry and tension, even when there is little or nothing to provoke it. They anticipate disaster and are overly concerned about health issues, money, family problems, or difficulties at work, according to NIMH. This disorder is twice as common in women.
“That seems to be for sort of a normal group who are working and have families. Some people just cannot stop worrying,” Dr. Combs says. “They worry constantly, it wakes them up at night, they’re tense, they’re moody and the just can’t stop worrying.”
OCD involves the occurrence of persistent, upsetting thoughts (obsessions) and using rituals (compulsions) to control the anxiety these thoughts produce. Most of the time, the rituals end up controlling them, according to NIMH. This disorder is equally common in men and women.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
PTSD is a disorder that some people acquire after experiencing a dangerous event. Although it’s natural to feel afraid, those who have PTSD feel stressed of fearful even when they are no longer in danger, according to NIMH. Women are more likely to have PTSD.
Anxiety disorders are commonly treated with medication or therapy, both of which are successful ways to manage the disorders. Dr. combs says the treatment depends on the patient.
“Medications are often fast acting, they’ll cut your anxiety down really quickly, so for people who have a panic attack, they can take the anxiety drug and that works usually within 30 minutes,” he says. “The psychological therapies have a roll for people who have tried medicine that maybe didn’t work or maybe they don’t want to take medicine at all.”
Although anxiety can be treated and managed, neither therapy nor medication can guarantee eliminating the problem permanently.
“We don’t like to use the term cure because it means the symptoms won’t ever come back, but you can control anxiety and you can manage it very well,” he says.
Since anxiety is a disorder related to brain chemistry, specifically serotonin, it’s not uncommon for anxiety and depression to be synonymously experienced. In fact, popular depression drugs like Zoloft and Prozac are also approved for anxiety.
“One of the things I’ve noticed is about 50 percent of people who have anxiety, also have depression,” he says.
Dr. Combs has noticed an increase of anxiety since he began his practice.
“People tend to be more worrisome, the stresses of life kind of build on people. People get over committed,” he says.