There are several types and categories of anxiety disorders, and together they make up the most common mental health condition diagnosed in the U.S. As much as 40 percent of all people experience an anxiety disorder at some time in their lives. While everyone experiences anxiety and nervousness, to be diagnosed with a disorder these feelings must persist and impair daily functioning.
Treatment for anxiety disorders usually includes some kind of therapy, but also medication. Anti-anxiety medications are used commonly, but they are not without their risks. They are susceptible to abuse, can cause dangerous side effects when mixed with alcohol, and may even lead to a dangerous addiction.
What Constitutes an Anxiety Disorder?
Everyone knows what anxiety is: that feeling of nervousness or worry that often precedes something important or a new experience. This is a perfectly normal feeling and it is very common. For instance, someone may feel anxious the day before starting a new job. It is normal to be worried about this major change and to feel anxious about how it will go. Anxiety is normal and can even be healthy because it can push a person to be better prepared or to call on the support or guidance of a friend.
What is not normal is anxiety that is so severe it disrupts the way a person lives his or her life, anxiety over something that would not normally cause worry or over something undefined, or anxiety that persists and occurs frequently. Anxiety is not a feeling that should dominate your life, and when it does, it may mean you have a diagnosable anxiety disorder.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder
Generalized anxiety disorder is the most common type of anxiety disorder and affects more than three percent of the population. It is characterized by anxiety that has no specific source, but that causes a person to worry about many things or sometimes about something that can’t be pinpointed. The anxiety can be so bad that it sucks hours out of a person’s day and makes it hard or impossible to do normal things. Signs of generalized anxiety disorder include constant worry or restlessness, trouble concentrating, irritability, fatigue, and difficulty sleeping.
Social Anxiety Disorder
Someone with social anxiety disorder have a lot of anxiety related to social situations and being around other people. This goes beyond being simply shy and can even feel like intense fear. The fear may be specific, like being afraid of being laughed at or saying something stupid, or just more generally a fear of being around people and being forced to be social. This can be debilitating and very limiting. Signs of social anxiety include being very anxious when around people or thinking about it, being extremely self-conscious around others or afraid of being judged or rejected, avoiding social situations, struggling to make friends, and even physical symptoms in social situations, like nausea.
Social anxiety may even trigger a panic disorder, a characteristic sign of panic disorder. Panic disorder is a very specific type of anxiety that involves frequent panic attacks. These are sudden and intense episodes of fear and anxiety that also cause physical symptoms that can be frightening. A panic attack may feel like being smothered or choked, or like there is something terrible approaching. A person may sweat, tremble, shake, and experience an accelerated heart rate. The disorder is characterized by multiple panic attacks, anxiety about having another attack, and avoiding places or situations where panic attacks occurred in the past.
Phobias are intense and specific fears. Someone with social anxiety disorder may have an intense fear of other people, which could also be classified as a phobia. The phobia may be a fear of heights, spiders, germs, or anything else. What triggers the fear is not what characterizes a phobia; it is the intensity and irrationality of the fear. Someone with a real phobia will spend time and energy avoiding what scares them, even if that means not being able to perform normal, daily activities.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
Obsessive compulsive disorder, or OCD, can be a debilitating anxiety disorder. There are two parts: obsessing over negative thoughts, such as losing a loved one in a car accident and compulsively engaging in behaviors to control the negative thoughts, such as turning the light switch on and off exactly six times before going to bed. People with OCD may become so consumed with these obsessions and compulsions, which are specific to each individual, that normal life becomes impossible.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Also known as PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder is a condition that is caused by some kind of trauma that results in symptoms like flashbacks and nightmares about the trauma, taking extreme measures to avoid whatever triggers bad memories, irritability and anger, outbursts, and difficulty sleeping or concentrating. PTSD is often associated with veterans who experienced trauma during active service, but anyone can develop it. The trauma may be witnessing violence, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, or any number of other traumatic experiences.
Treatment for Anxiety Disorders
The main treatments for anxiety disorders are therapy and medication. Some types of anxiety disorder have specific treatments, such as exposure therapy for phobias or PTSD. Exposure therapy involves guided exposure to whatever is causing a person anxiety or fear. While exposing a person to their fear, a therapist will also help the patient learn to relax and regulate emotions as a way to cope with something fearful.
A more common type of therapy for any anxiety disorder is cognitive behavioral therapy, CBT. CBT aims to help a patient learn to recognize negative or false thoughts and behaviors and to take steps to change them as they are happening. Therapy through support groups is another way that people with anxiety can learn to cope with negative emotions.
Medications for anxiety are called anti-anxiety drugs and they mostly belong to a class called benzodiazepines. These help a person relax and while they don’t cure an anxiety disorder, can relieve symptoms. Antidepressants may also be used to help treat someone with an anxiety disorder. Beta blockers may help control physical symptoms, like rapid heart rate, sweating, and trembling.
Misuse of Anti-Anxiety Medications
The most common treatment for anxiety is the use of benzodiazepines, like Xanax or Valium. These drugs work well for many people, but they also present serious risks. These medications are Schedule IV controlled substances, which means that there is some potential for abuse. Because they provide a sense of relaxation and calm, people sometimes turn to benzodiazepines even when they have not been prescribed them or they use more than they were directed by a doctor.
Withdrawal and Addiction
Because Xanax and Valium have a potential for abuse, they also have the potential to lead to addiction. The first sign of this is when the drug causes withdrawal. Withdrawal in turn may cause someone to keep abusing a drug, which then worsens the addiction. Withdrawal from anti-anxiety medications may cause anxiety, irritability, vomiting, shaking, nausea, headaches, and insomnia. Treating an addiction to these drugs requires more treatment and therapy.
Mixing Medications with Alcohol
Another danger of taking Xanax or Valium is what may happen if used with alcohol. Some people may mix them intentionally, but no matter how it happens, this mix is dangerous. Both alcohol and benzodiazepines are central nervous system depressants, so the effect is doubled when they are mixed. The combination makes overdosing and dying a real risk. The mixture can also make it very dangerous for someone to drive or operate any type of equipment.
Anxiety disorders are common mental health conditions that affect millions of people. Regardless of the type of anxiety, the condition can be overwhelming. It can become debilitating and take over a person’s life. Treatment is essential, because anxiety disorders do not go away without help. Treatment with medications can be helpful, but also risky. Make sure you understand the potential dangers of using anti-anxiety medications before taking that step.