Everyday life is full of things to be a little nervous about. Bills, job interviews, first dates, the economy, the state of the world – there’s plenty to worry over. But when it becomes impossible to flip the anxiety switch off, that’s when everyday worry goes from a normal part of life to a mental health issue – anxiety.
What is anxiety?
The American Psychological Association defines anxiety as “an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like high blood pressure.”
Anxiety, in small doses, is a normal and healthy part of life. But when anxiety becomes continuous, overwhelming, and interferes with everyday activities, it becomes a mental health condition.
Anxiety affects more than 40 million Americans, making it the most common mental health concern in the U.S.
When does anxiety need treatment?
Anxiety’s job is to make us aware of potential threats and keep us safe in a dangerous environment. Feeling anxious when you heard a strange noise in the middle of the night is a completely normal response – it makes you look for exits and make a mental plan of response in case you are attacked. This is healthy anxiety.
Unhealthy anxiety, like the kind that needs treatment, would cause your mind and body to experience that same intensity of response as hearing a strange noise in the night, but for situations that are not nearly as dangerous.
People with generalized anxiety disorder tend to have frequent, intense, and persistent worry that interferes with their daily lives. These worries are disproportionate to the actual dangers they are facing. Some people who suffer from anxiety avoid places and situations that trigger their anxiety, which can greatly affect their quality of life.
Symptoms of anxiety
Symptoms of anxiety can vary from person to person, but most anxiety sufferers experience at least some of the symptoms in the list below.
- Repeated episodes of sudden fear or terror, also known as panic attacks
- Unrelenting tension
- Experiencing feelings of impending doom or danger for no logical reason
- Increased heart rate
- Hyperventilation (rapid breathing)
- Sweating from nervousness
- Shaking or trembling
- Trouble concentrating
- Racing thoughts
- Habits like nail biting or lip chewing
- Gastrointestinal distress
- Worry and fear responses disproportionate with the triggering event
- Imagining future problems consistently (doomsday thinking)
- Abusing cigarettes, alcohol, or drugs
- Experiencing out-of-proportion responses to small inconveniences
When do people develop anxiety?
People of all ages can experience anxiety. It is most common among middle-aged adults, probably due to the heavy emotional and workload on people in the middle stage of their lives. One study showed that 23% of adults aged 30-44 in America suffer from anxiety. Facing a mountain of work and family obligations, caring for children and aging parents, and balancing it all is tough. Middle age is often when people start to suffer from a generalized anxiety disorder.
What causes anxiety?
Anxiety can be caused by many factors including a genetic predisposition, trauma, stress, medications, and medical illnesses. Sometimes people experience anxiety in childhood and it follows them their entire lives. Other times, anxiety develops during a stressful time or after a traumatic event.
Medical illnesses that may contribute to anxiety include:
- Thyroid problems
- Respiratory disorders such as COPD
- Withdrawal from alcohol, illegal drugs, or certain medications
- Chronic pain
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Heart disease
- Hormonal imbalances
Risk factors for developing anxiety
Certain issues put you at an increased risk of developing anxiety, such as:
Trauma – A traumatic event may bring on anxiety symptoms in adults. Children who experience trauma such as abuse or witnessing events like domestic abuse are more likely to develop anxiety in childhood or later in life.
Ongoing stress – Continuous worry takes a toll on the body. Long-term stress such as worrying about finances, caring for an ailing loved one, or dealing with a chronic illness can trigger anxiety.
Mental health disorders – Anxiety often co-exists with other mental health conditions such as depression.
Genetic predisposition – People with close family members who have anxiety are more likely to develop anxiety themselves.
Treatments for anxiety
Fortunately for anxiety sufferers, there are many different treatments for anxiety that help people manage their symptoms and find calm even in their busy lives.
Therapy – When anxiety is brought on by traumatic events, therapy can be especially helpful. Therapy helps the patient get to the root of what’s causing their symptoms and helps them deal with the buried thoughts and emotions that may be contributing to their anxiety. Therapy can also be effective for people whose anxiety is medically or genetically caused because it helps them manage their emotions and teaches them effective coping mechanisms to deal with stress.
Medication – There are many different types of anti-anxiety medication available to help anxiety sufferers manage their symptoms. Some medications are taken daily, and others are taken only on an as-needed basis to help patients manage stressful situations or events.
Lifestyle modifications that improve anxiety
In addition to medication and psychotherapy, many anxiety sufferers find increased relief by incorporating certain lifestyle modifications into their daily lives.
Get active – Regular physical activity is proven to help relieve stress and boost mood. You don’t have to run a marathon every weekend to experience these positive effects. A daily walk around the neighborhood can do wonders for calming the effects of anxiety.
Spend time in nature – Especially in New York City and other urban areas, it can be difficult to find opportunities to spend time in nature, but it’s worth the effort. Our bodies and brains evolved in the outdoors, and we still crave the experience of being surrounded by plants, near water, and breathing fresh air. Spend some time in a nearby park as often as you can. Adding plants to your home or office can also mimic a natural environment when you’re indoors.
Practice mindfulness – Learning to practice mindfulness, which you can learn about in our blog here, can help you drown out the stresses of the day and give your brain a calming break. Mindfulness can be done on the NYC subway, waiting in line, or on your lunch break – it’s easy to incorporate into your day!
Get Enough Sleep – A rested brain is more able to deal with the stress and obligations of the day. Prioritize sleep. If you’re not sleeping well, talk to your doctor about medications or lifestyle changes that can help you get a good night’s rest.
Ready to take charge of your anxiety?
Schedule your appointment with New York City psychiatrist Dr. Jeff Ditzell today. Our office offers a wide variety of anxiety treatments to help you feel better and find the relief you’ve been looking for.