Anxiety disorders include Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is an exaggerated anxiety and tension that persists for months on end and affects approximately 6.8 million Americans or about 3.1 percent of the population. GAD causes people to anticipate catastrophe and worry excessively about many things, from overarching concerns such as health, money or work to more routine concerns such as car repairs or appointments. GAD affects twice as many women as men, and the anxiety becomes so severe, normal life and relationships become impaired.
Worries can be accompanied by physical symptoms, such as fatigue, headaches, muscle tension and aches, difficulty swallowing, trembling, twitching, irritability, sweating, and hot flashes. The disorder usually develops gradually and may begin anytime during life, although the risk is highest between childhood and middle age. It is diagnosed when someone spends at least six months worrying excessively without a specific focus of the fear and an inability to control the anxiety.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is an anxiety disorder marked by fearful ideas and ritualistic behaviors. Obsessions are repetitive thoughts or impulses, such as a fear of getting infected from someone else’s germs or hurting a loved one. These obsessions create excessive anxiety and stress for the person affected. Although the thoughts are intrusive and unwanted, the person with OCD cannot stop them. Compulsions are repetitive behaviors people with OCD feel compelled to perform in an attempt to control or decrease the anxiety created by the obsessions. This can include things like constantly checking that an oven is off to prevent a fire, or frequent cleaning or hand-washing to avoid contamination.
Panic disorder is characterized by unexpected and repeated episodes of intense fear accompanied by physical symptoms that may include chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, dizziness or abdominal distress. It is characterized by sudden attacks of terror, usually accompanied by a pounding heart, sweatiness, weakness, faintness or dizziness. During these attacks, people with panic disorder may flush or feel chilled; their hands may tingle or feel numb; and they may experience nausea, chest pain or smothering sensations. Panic attacks usually produce a sense of unreality, a fear of impending doom or a fear of losing control. Panic attacks can occur at any time, even during sleep.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to a terrifying event or ordeal in which grave physical harm occurred or was threatened. After traumatic events, such as death, an earthquake, war, car accidents, floods or fires, it is not uncommon for people to experience feelings of heightened fear, worry, sadness or anger. If the emotions persist, however, or become severe, or the person gets triggered into reliving the event in their daily life, this can affect the person’s ability to function and may be a sign of PTSD.
Primary care physicians and psychiatrists diagnose someone as having an anxiety disorder if symptoms occur for six months on more days than not, and significantly interfere with the person’s ability to function at home, work or school.
Doctors perform physical and psychological evaluations to rule out other causes for the symptoms of anxiety. Cardiovascular disease, thyroid problems, menopause, substance abuse and/or drug side effects, such as from steroids, may cause symptoms similar to those of an anxiety disorder.
Stress is a normal physical response to events that make one feel threatened or that upset one’s balance in some way. When the body senses danger—real or imagined—the body's defenses kick into high gear in a rapid, automatic process known as the ‘fight-or-flight’ reaction, or the stress response. The nervous system responds by releasing a flood of stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, that rouse the body for emergency action.
Stress during development has often been regarded as a potentially disruptive force, capable of inducing disease states if overly prolonged or exceedingly intense. It can also, however, favor resiliency and adaptive processing that are crucial to navigating a human life. Countless studies have indicated that severe neglect during infancy, both in humans and in laboratory animals, results in long-term abnormal development of biological systems involved in the regulation of emotions, but the response to stress is also a key driver to individual development. The biological system responsible for physical reactions to a stressor not only coordinates immediate responses to external challenges but also functions as a tool that enables the characterization of an environment as favorable or threatening. Thus the stress response system promotes long-term adaptive processes that prepare the individual to cope with specific external challenges.
Youth of all ages, but especially younger children, may find it difficult to recognize and verbalize when they are experiencing stress. For children, stress can manifest itself through changes in behavior. Common changes can include irritability, withdrawal from formerly pleasurable activities, routine expression of worries, excessive complaints about school, frequent crying, display of surprising fearful reactions, separation anxiety, sleeping too much or too little, or eating too much or too little. With teens, while spending more time with and confiding in peers is a normal part of growing up, significantly avoiding parents, abandoning long-time friendships for a new set of peers, or expressing excessive hostility toward family members may indicate that the teen is experiencing significant stress.
In the physical sciences, materials and objects are termed resilient if they resume their original shape upon being bent or stretched. In people, resilience refers to the ability to ‘bounce back’ after encountering difficulty.
In their 20 years of treating and studying trauma survivors, Drs. Dennis Charney and Steven Southwick have identified ten common practices in people who have shown resilience in the face of extreme stress.