Anxiety disorders are a common form of mental illness, often causing significant distress and impairment, and leading to reduced quality of life.
Anxiety is a normal response to stress, worry or threat – but when it is very severe, long-lasting, or out of proportion to the circumstances, it becomes known as an anxiety disorder.
There are several different types of anxiety disorder: for example, generalised anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, panic disorder and obsessive–compulsive disorder. By affecting a person’s mood, thoughts and behaviour, an anxiety disorder can make it difficult to cope with daily life at home, at work or school, and when socialising.
Anxiety disorders are caused by an imbalance of chemicals in the brain. The exact trigger for this change is not known, although people who are exposed to certain biological and social conditions may have an increased risk of developing anxiety disorders.
Although they vary between individuals, typical symptoms of anxiety disorders include fear, inner tension, irritability and poor concentration, and physical signs such as dry mouth, dizziness, tense muscles, sweating and palpitations – all of which interfere with daily life. A person may suffer from more than one anxiety disorder at the same time, and sometimes alongside other mood disorders such as depression (so-called ‘co-morbidity’).
¨ Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) involves a non-specific anxiety that something undesirable could happen. Excessive and uncontrollable worry, anxiety and tension are typical symptoms, together with physical symptoms such as dry mouth, clammy hands, sweating or dizziness.
¨ Social anxiety disorder (SAD) causes people to fear or avoid social situations. The person fears that he or she will act in a way that will be humiliating or embarrassing.
¨ Panic disorder is typified by sudden panic attacks associated with marked fear or nervousness. Panic disorder can also include physical symptoms such as sweating, pain, headache, nausea, a pounding heart or a dry mouth.
¨ Obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD) causes repetitive, obtrusive and unwanted thoughts, which result in unreasonable fears (obsessions) associated with cleanliness, body secretions or health, for example. In response to these fears, patients may also carry out special rituals (compulsions), including persistent washing, cleaning, bathing, constant checking and rechecking, or maintaining a rigid diet.
It has been estimated that anxiety disorders affect between 5 and 7% of the general population, and that up to 29% of people will suffer from an anxiety disorder at least once during their lifetime. In 2004, over 28 million people worldwide had obsessive–compulsive disorder, and over 30 million experienced panic disorder.
Anxiety disorders affect both men and women across the world, but the burden of the disease is greater in women than in men.
Seeking diagnosis and care
Many treatments are available to effectively manage anxiety disorders, and personal support from family and friends is valuable at all stages.
During a medical appointment, a doctor will diagnose anxiety disorders by asking questions about symptoms, daily life and family history. There may also be a physical examination to exclude other conditions. If an anxiety disorder is confirmed, treatment options will then be considered, including medications, counselling, social support, exercise, relaxation and self-help techniques.
In all cases, it is important that professional advice is sought.
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2. World Health Organization (2004). Prevalence for Selected Causes in WHO Regions, 2004. http://www.who.int/healthinfo/global_burden_disease/PREV6%202004.xls. Accessed 16/09/11.
3. World Health Organization (2004). The Global Burden of Disease. 2004 Update. www.who.int/healthinfo/global_burden_disease/2004_report_update/en/index.html. Accessed 16/09/11.