Causes, Symptoms & Effects of Anxiety

Anxiety is a general term used to describe several disorders that cause nervousness, fear, apprehension, and worrying. While it is normal to experience these emotions at different times, those with anxiety disorders are significantly impacted on a daily basis. Some amount of stress associated with reaching deadlines at work or the time before taking a test is completely normal and almost expected. However, when the anxiety interferes with a person’s ability to function, it becomes a problem.

Anxiety disorders are a group of mental illnesses that cause many people to feel frightened, uneasy, fearful, and distressed in situations that would not normally lead to these feelings. Without proper treatment, anxiety can inhibit someone’s ability to work or study, have successful social relationships with friends or family, and may stop someone from engaging in activities they would have otherwise enjoyed. Anxiety disorders can cause problems in even the most menial daily activities. Anxiety disorders can be classified into several more specific disorders, the most common ones listed below.

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is a chronic disorder that causes individuals to feel severe, unremitting, chronic worry about nonspecific life events, objects, and situations. This worry or anxiety lasts at least six months, for many hours throughout the day, and impairs concentration, making carrying out routine tasks complicated. Some people who have GAD may spend a majority of their time feeling dread and “free-floating” anxiety that is not attached to any particular stimuli.

Panic disorder is characterized by panic attacks, which are sudden attacks of intense terror and apprehension that lead to a number of physical symptoms. Physical symptoms of a panic attack may include chest pain, heart palpitations, feelings of being disconnected, dizziness, nausea, difficulty breathing, and fear of dying. Many people who have panic disorder are ashamed of their panic attacks and may start to avoid going certain places that may bring about a panic attack.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder precipitated by a traumatic event that involved experiencing or witnessing a threat of death. People who have PTSD suffer from nightmares, hypervigilance, flashbacks, and emotional numbness. Without proper care, these feelings tend to grow worse over time.

Phobias are an irrational fear and avoidance of some type of object or situation. Phobias are different than generalized anxiety because they have a response that is identified with a specific cause. While recognized as irrational or unnecessary, an individual is unable to control the resulting anxiety.

Social phobia (social anxiety disorder) is the debilitating fear of being negatively judged by others in public or fear of public embarrassment due to impulsive behaviors. This disorder can cause individuals to avoid public situations and human contact.

Fortunately, anxiety disorders are a treatable mental disorder. With proper care and therapies, people who have anxiety disorders can go on to lead normal, productive, and fulfilled lives.

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Statistics

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illnesses in the United States, affecting about 20% of the population. This means that about 40 million individuals in the United States suffer from anxiety disorders. While the average age of onset is 31 years of age, it has been reported that approximately 8% of teens aged 13 to 18 have an anxiety disorder, with symptoms most commonly appearing around age 6.

Causes and Risk Factors for Anxiety Disorders

It’s generally accepted by researchers that anxiety disorders are not the result of one particular factor, but instead caused by a number of factors working together. Environmental, medical, genetic, and physical factors can all lead to the development of anxiety. The causes of and risk factors for anxiety disorders include:

Genetic: Anxiety disorders tend to run in families, which suggests that these disorders have a large genetic component. People with first-degree relatives who have an anxiety disorder are more likely to have an anxiety disorder than those without a similar family history.

Physical: Neuroimaging of the brains of people who have anxiety disorders have shown that there are specific areas of the brain – the amygdala and the hippocampus – that are involved in anxiety disorders. Deficits in these parts of the brain that are involved in anxiety and fear can lead to the development of an anxiety disorder. Additionally, studies have shown that individuals with abnormal levels of neurotransmitters in the brain are more likely to suffer from GAD. When these neurotransmitters are not working properly, the brain’s internal communication system is interrupted and the brain may act inappropriately in certain situations, leading to anxiety.

Environmental: Significant life experiences and stressors can overwhelm a person’s ability to cope with daily life and can lead to the development of anxiety disorders.

Risk Factors:

  • Being female
  • Substance abuse
  • Serious illness, disability, or deformity
  • Consistent money problems
  • Family or relationship struggles
  • Stress
  • Personality types
  • Experiencing military combat, accidents, or other traumatic events
  • Childhood trauma, neglect, or abuse

Signs and Symptoms of Anxiety Disorders

The symptoms of anxiety disorders will vary depending upon the type of anxiety disorder an individual has, presence of co-occurring disorders, and individual characteristics. The most common symptoms of anxiety disorders may include:

Behavioral Symptoms:

  • Social withdrawal
  • Inability to fulfill responsibilities at work, school, or home
  • Lack of patience
  • Restlessness
  • Lack of interest in normal activities
  • Inability to fall asleep or stay asleep
  • Irritability
  • Easily startled
  • Twitchiness
  • Decreasing ability to perform activities of daily living
  • Using more and increasing amounts of drugs or alcohol to relieve symptoms
  • Panicky in crowds or other social situations
  • Avoidance of people
  • Tongue tied in conversations

Physical Symptoms:

  • Fatigue
  • Lightheadedness
  • Hot flashes
  • Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea
  • Muscle tension and aches
  • Headaches
  • Frequent trips to the bathroom
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nightmares
  • Pounding heart
  • Tremors in fine muscles
  • Dizziness
  • Insomnia
  • Changes in eating patterns
  • Sweating
  • Panic attacks

Cognitive Symptoms:

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Mind going blank
  • Irrational fear and dread
  • Excessive worry
  • Poor memory and concentration
  • Obsessive thoughts

Psychosocial Symptoms:

  • Feelings of helplessness
  • Low self-esteem
  • Mood swings
  • Feeling as though danger is around every corner
  • Constant obsession and concern about small or large problems
  • Flashbacks
  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Hopelessness
If you feel that you are in crisis, or are having thoughts about hurting yourself or others, please call 9-1-1 or go to the nearest emergency room immediately.

Effects of Anxiety Disorders

If left untreated, the effects of anxiety disorders will slowly overtake every aspect of an individual’s life. Long-term effects of untreated anxiety disorders may vary based upon frequency of symptoms, presence of co-occurring disorders, and severity level of this disorder. The effects of anxiety disorders may include:

  • Substance abuse and addiction
  • Social isolation
  • Relationship problems
  • Job loss or scholastic failure
  • Migraines
  • Bruxism
  • Digestive or bowel problems
  • Insomnia
  • Inability to go certain places or see certain people
  • Self-harm
  • Suicidal ideations and behaviors

Co-Occurring Disorders

It is not uncommon for someone with an anxiety disorders to struggle with other types of mental disorders. The most common co-occurring disorders include:

  • Schizophrenia
  • Substance abuse
  • Alcoholism
  • Borderline personality disorder
  • Depressive disorders
  • Bipolar disorder
  • OCD
  • ADHD
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