Anxiety Disorders_”Beyond Stress and Worry

Like everyone else, you probably feel anxious from time to time—before exams, at the beginning of a new relationship, or as you prepare for a speech. Anxiety is a natural part of life. But sometimes simple anxiety becomes an “anxiety disorder” when it starts to interfere with everyday life. This normally helpful emotion can go beyond a case of the “nerves” and keep you from coping effectively.

More than 23 million Americans have anxiety disorder. Their lives are filled with overwhelming anxiety and fears that are chronic, unremitting, and usually grow progressively worse when untreated. Panic attacks, irrational thoughts and fears, compulsive behaviors or rituals, flashbacks and nightmares are just a few of the symptoms that plague people with anxiety disorders. Sometimes, because of a widespread lack of understanding and the stigma associated with mental disorders, people are afraid to seek help even though they know something is terribly wrong.

Anxiety disorders are not uncommon among 18 to 24 year olds. Like other disorders, anxiety disorders may begin in adolescence. Having symptoms of extreme anxiety is often related to our biological makeup and life experiences. Anxiety disorders can be extremely disabling if they go untreated. People with anxiety disorders can have great difficulty in school, work, and social relationships. A person with an anxiety disorder may have co-existing disorders such as depression, an eating disorder, or substance abuse.

There are several different kinds of anxiety disorders. A generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is more than the normal anxiety people experience from day to day. It is chronic, exaggerated worry and tension that seems to be provoked by nothing. Having this disorder means always anticipating disaster and often worrying excessively about health, money, family, or work. People with GAD can't seem to shake their concerns, even though they usually realize that their anxiety is more intense than the situation warrants.

Panic Disorders are repeated episodes of intense fear that strikes often and without warning. People suffering from panic disorders experience repeated feelings of sudden terror or impending doom. These panic attacks can happen several times a week or even within the same day. Physical symptoms include chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, dizziness, choking sensations, and a fear of being out of control.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorders (OCD) afflicts roughly 1 in 50 people. People who have OCD become trapped in a pattern of: 1) distressing thoughts or impulses that they feel they have no control over, and 2) repetitive actions that are difficult to overcome. Some examples of behavior related to OCD are excessive hand washing due to repeated thoughts about being contaminated with germs, excessive cleaning or dusting, repeatedly checking door locks or light switches, or precisely arranging items in a particular order for no useful reason. People with OCD realize their obsessions and compulsions are unreasonable, but they can't stop them.

Phobias occur in several forms. A specific phobia is a fear of a particular object or situation. People with specific phobias experience extreme, disabling, and irrational fear of something that poses little or no danger. This fear leads to avoidance of objects and situations and can cause people to limit their lives unnecessarily. Social Phobia is a fear of being painfully embarrassed in a social setting. People with social phobias have an overwhelming and disabling fear or scrutiny, embarrassment, or humiliation in social situations, which lead to avoidance of many potentially pleasurable and meaningful activities.

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Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a debilitating condition that follows a terrifying event, such as war, violent attacks, child abuse, a serious accident, or a natural disaster. People with PTSD repeatedly re-live the trauma in the form of nightmares and disturbing recollections during the day. They may also experience sleep problems, depression, feeling detached or numb, or being easily startled.

Help is available. If you or someone you know suffers from symptoms of severe anxiety come to the Anxiety Disorder Lecture, sponsored by the Student Health Center, on March 28 at 12 p.m. in room 105 in the Campus Center. After the lecture there will be an opportunity for you to be screened for symptoms of anxiety and talk to a mental health professional. There are very effective treatments for anxiety disorders. Treatment may include psychotherapy, medications, or a combination of the two. People can learn to change their behaviors or to react differently to stressful situations. Several types of medications that alter the ways chemicals interact in the brain can help people with anxiety disorders. There are more medications available with fewer side effects than ever before.

DeKeyser is a nurse at the UAA Student Health Center.