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Overview of Anxiety

Physiologically speaking, anxiety is the basis of action that can help us cope with difficult situations. A certain amount of worry is healthy, in fact, as it will encourage you to confront a problem that has been nagging you or coax you to start working on a presentation the week before the deadline instead of waiting until the last minute. While fears tend to have very specific roots, anxieties tend to be more directed toward things that we cannot control or sometimes things we cannot identify. Still, a change of mood and a physiological state is triggered. Anxiety induces the natural "fight or flight" response which diverts the body's resources for either fighting a perceived threat or making a hasty escape. Even if there is no real threat, our body responds much the same way a gazelle's body might respond to the sight of a lion in the distance.

Anxiety disorders, in which a person is prone to chronic worry and the physical symptoms of excessive anxiety, can be quite debilitating. For people suffering from this mental health issue, their irrational anxieties may interfere with their daily lives, preventing them from interacting with others, going to work, or even leaving their homes. Anxiety disorders affect more than 40 million adults every year, making them the most common mental illnesses diagnosed.

Symptoms of Anxiety

In addition to the worrisome thoughts that accompany anxiety, physical symptoms may also begin to develop as the body prepares for confrontation. The heart begins pounding and the blood pressure increases to supply the major muscle groups with oxygenated blood. The immune and digestive systems are suppressed, as they are not needed for fighting or fleeing. Outward, the skin may pale and become sweaty, the hands may tremble, and the pupils may dilate. If sustained, the person may feel nausea, dizziness, choking, muscle pain, and shortness of breath. The onset of these symptoms may be quite sudden, lending to the term "panic attack." Not all those that suffer from anxiety have panic attacks. Some with constant low levels of anxiety instead suffer from chronic feelings of fatigue, and experience the other symptoms during times of more intense stress. Chronic sufferers of anxiety may also develop particular behavioral patterns to avoid the things that seem to trigger their attacks.

Common Anxiety Disorders

People that have generalized anxiety have chronic feelings of stress and worry not directed toward any particular focus. Instead, they may worry about whatever is at the forefront of their mind, such as their work, home life, or financial situation. The constant fretting can be both physically and mentally exhausting, making it hard to cope with everyday life and maintain relationships.

Very young children have separation anxiety, which is emotional distress caused by the absence of their parents. As they get older, however, they overcome this anxiety and learn to trust that a person exists even when they are not in sight. With separation anxiety disorder, which can also occur in adults, a person is consistently and excessively distressed then they are away from the person that is the object of attachment. The separation can induce a sort of irrational panic and cause a person to think their spouse will not come home from work, for example.

In the case of panic disorder, a person experiences frequent panic attacks. In addition to unusually intense physical symptoms, a person may be overwhelmed by feelings of terror that cause confusion and uncontrollable trembling. Once these attacks begin, the worry of having an attack can, in itself, trigger an attack. When these attacks are associated with particular activities, such as driving over a bridge, it may cause a person to change their behavior and avoid the activity entirely. This is how phobias develop, as people develop anxieties about objects and situations. Even if the fear is irrational, the notion that something bad could happen might cause them to avoid the triggers of their anxiety all together, restricting and potentially interfering with their life.

Social anxiety disorder is rooted in a person's worries that others may be judgmental of them or that they may be embarrassed. Stage fright is a quite common form of this, though it generally passes as soon as the performance or presentation is over. Social anxiety extends beyond this, however, leading the person to assume they are being judged in all social situations. This means that any sort of public performances is impossible and private dealings with people, whether intimate or not, are avoided.

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Article Last Updated: 08/26/2015