Anxiety, on the other hand, is more general and complex. It is felt in anticipation of danger, and is associated with the ability to predict, prepare for, and adapt to change. Often, it lasts a long time, and its cause remains ill-defined. For example, someone uneasy about public speaking may experience a tightness in the stomach for days before a scheduled talk.
Both fear and anxiety send signals through the body that prepare all systems for possible danger. Hormones, such as adrenaline and catecholamine, are released in what is known as the "fight or flight" response. The sudden increase in hormone levels speeds up the heart and increases the amount of blood being pumped. At the same time, the muscles tighten, increasing the individual's ability to fight or flee from danger. The intensity of these physiological responses varies according to the seriousness of the event or thought that sparked the emotion, the strength of the individual's fear or anxiety, and his or her previous experience and genetic makeup.
While both fear and anxiety can provoke an arousal response, their other effects diverge. Very intense fear sometimes serves to "freeze" the body to protect it from harm, causing little or no change in heart rate and blocking the impulse to move. In anxiety, the physical changes caused by arousal lead to a second stage marked by thought patterns such as worry, dread, and mental replays of anxiety-arousing events.
Like heart disease and diabetes, the brain disorders are complex and probably result from a combination of genetic, behavioral, developmental, and other factors.
Other research focuses on the hippocampus, another brain structure that is responsible for processing threatening or traumatic stimuli. The hippocampus plays a key role in the brain by helping to encode information into memories. Studies have shown that the hippocampus appears to be smaller in people who have undergone severe stress because of child abuse or military combat. This reduced size could help explain why individuals with PTSD have flashbacks, deficits in explicit memory, and fragmented memory for details of the traumatic event.
Also, research indicates that other brain parts called the basal ganglia and striatum are involved in obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Scientists are also conducting clinical trials to find the most effective ways of treating anxiety disorders. For example, one trial is examining how well medication and behavioral therapies work together and separately in the treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Another trial is assessing the safety and efficacy of medication treatments for anxiety disorders in children and adolescents with co-occurring attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. For more information about clinical trials, for example the National Library of Medicine's clinical trials database.
Before treatment can begin, the doctor must conduct a careful diagnostic evaluation to determine whether your symptoms are due to an anxiety disorder, which anxiety disorder(s) you may have, and what coexisting conditions may be present. Anxiety disorders are not all treated the same, and it is important to determine the specific problem before embarking on a course of treatment. Sometimes alcoholism or some other coexisting condition will have such an impact that it is necessary to treat it at the same time or before treating the anxiety disorder.
If you have been treated previously for an anxiety disorder, be prepared to tell the doctor what treatment you tried. If it was a medication, what was the dosage, was it gradually increased, and how long did you take it? If you had psychotherapy, what kind was it, and how often did you attend sessions? It often happens that people believe they have "failed" at treatment, or that the treatment has failed them, when in fact it was never given an adequate trial.
Many people with anxiety disorders benefit from joining a self-help group and sharing their problems and achievements with others. Talking with trusted friends or a trusted member of the clergy can also be very helpful, although not a substitute for mental health care. Participating in an Internet chat room may also be of value in sharing concerns and decreasing a sense of isolation, but any advice received should be viewed with caution.
Stress management techniques and meditation may help you to calm yourself and enhance the effects of therapy, although there is as yet no scientific evidence to support the value of these "wellness" approaches to recovery from anxiety disorders. There is preliminary evidence that aerobic exercise may be of value, and it is known that caffeine, illicit drugs, and even some over-the-counter cold medications can aggravate the symptoms of an anxiety disorder. Check with your physician or pharmacist before taking any additional medicines.
Learning theory views anxiety as a learned behavior that can be unlearned. This theory posits that a person's anxiety can be reduced by persistently confronting the feared situation or object. And some people do, in fact, change their thinking and experience significant relief without any medication.
Psychoanalytic theory holds that anxiety stems from unconscious conflict arising from discomfort or distress during childhood. Once the source of the anxiety is identified, it can be eliminated by resolving the underlying conflict. However, most studies find that people with anxiety disorders come from stable homes, with childhood backgrounds similar to those of people without anxiety disorders.
Stress, trauma, uncertainty. Most theorists agree that, other factors aside, stress, trauma, and uncertainties can play a role in the development of anxiety disorders. Studies show a relationship between anxiety and stress, which can be defined as a consequence of adapting to a change. Challenges such as the death of a loved one require a major adaptation that can contribute to the development of an anxiety disorder. Uncertainty during transitions, or about the future, can also produce anxiety. Some studies have found that a stressful event precedes the appearance of many anxiety disorders, though this result is not yet conclusive. The influence of these factors appears to vary with the disorder. In post-traumatic stress syndrome, such factors play a major role, whereas in obsessive- compulsive disorder, brain chemistry appears to be the primary culprit.
An imbalance in these neurotransmitters can cause a corresponding shift in our thoughts. But is the reverse also true? Can a determined change in our thinking alter the chemistry in the brain? Many experts are convinced this is true; and behavioral therapy aimed at changing our reactions does, in fact, cure many problems. Indeed, for some disorders, such as phobias, this type of therapy remains the most effective alternative.
If you, or someone you know, has symptoms of anxiety, a visit to the family physician is usually the best place to start. A physician can help determine whether the symptoms are due to an anxiety disorder, some other medical condition, or both. Frequently, the next step in getting treatment for an anxiety disorder is referral to a mental health professional.
Psychologists, social workers, and counselors sometimes work closely with a psychiatrist or other physician, who will prescribe medications when they are required. For some people, group therapy is a helpful part of treatment.
Remember, though, that when you find a health care professional that you're satisfied with, the two of you are working together as a team. Together you will be able to develop a plan to treat your anxiety disorder that may involve medications, cognitive-behavioral or other talk therapy, or both, as appropriate.
Unrestrained anxiety can lead to any of several emotional disorders, all characterized by an unpleasant and overwhelming mental tension with no apparent identifiable cause. While most people with anxiety disorders are completely aware that their thoughts and behavior are irrational and inappropriate, this insight gives them no help in controlling their symptoms.
Each anxiety disorder has its own distinct features, but they are all bound together by the common theme of excessive, irrational fear and dread.
- A state of uneasiness and apprehension, as about future uncertainties.
- Worry or tension in response to real or imagined stress, danger, or dreaded situations. Physical reactions such as fast pulse, sweating, trembling, fatigue, and weakness may accompany anxiety.
- A psychiatric disorder involving the presence of anxiety that is so intense or so frequently present that it causes difficulty or distress for the individual.
- Any of various disorders in which anxiety is either the primary disturbance or is the result of confronting a feared situation or object; they include obsessive-compulsive disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder.
- Fear is an unpleasant feeling of perceived risk or danger, whether it be real or imagined.
- In psychiatry, a symptom of mood disorder characterized by intense feelings of loss, sadness, hopelessness, failure, and rejection.
- A state of emotional and psychological well-being in which an individual is able to use his or her cognitive and emotional capabilities, function in society, and meet the ordinary demands of everyday life.
- The psychological state of someone who is functioning at a satisfactory level of emotional and behavioral adjustment.
- A state of extreme difficulty, pressure, or strain.
- A physical and psychological response that results from being exposed to a demand or pressure.