What’s the Deal with Anxiety Disorders?

By Courtney Glueck, PhD

It’s that time of the year again. With the year’s end fast approaching and the holiday season in full swing, many people are likely experiencing heightened levels of stress and worry. Arranging holiday travels and gatherings, finding the perfect present, keeping up that workout routine, and meeting end-of-year deadlines are just a few of the things likely to cause excess worry this time of year. For many it happens every year at this time, and so it doesn’t come as a surprise or present excessive concern. We face it, push through, and get back to “normal life” in January. Now, imagine what it would be like to have this level of stress, worry, and pre-occupation characterize your life year-round. For a select group of people who suffer with anxiety disorders, this, unfortunately, is a persistent and daunting reality.

Anxiety Disorders: An Overview

Anxiety disorders are a broad category of mental disorders that includes many different manifestations, including generalized anxiety disorder, specific phobia, social anxiety, and panic disorder, and together they make up one of the most common forms of mental illness. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately 31.1% of U.S. adults experience an anxiety disorder at some time in their lives. Unfortunately, despite their prevalence, many still misunderstand these disorders and struggle to cope themselves and/or support others they know living with these challenges.

Debunking Myths about Anxiety

Several myths exist around anxiety and anxiety disorders. Below are just a few:

1.  Anxiety isn’t a “real” illness. (While some level of anxiety is natural and can even be adaptive, anxiety disorders are characterized by excessive levels of anxiety that cause impairment and are very real.)

2. Some people are just worriers who cannot be treated. (While anxiety often has a genetic component, there are several approaches to treatment which have been proven effective through scientific research, including cognitive behavioral therapy.)

3. Someone with anxiety should just avoid situations that cause stress. (This approach to “treatment” is impossible, as stress in an unavoidable part of life. In addition, relying solely on avoidance approaches only reinforces the anxiety disorder by maintaining feelings of fragility and ineffectiveness.)

4. Anxiety will probably get better over time if I just wait. (In reality, anxiety rarely improves over time without some targeted treatment or support. In fact, untreated anxiety can also lead to added mental and physical health issues, including depression.)

5. People with anxiety can just “snap out of it” if they really want to; they just aren’t trying hard enough. (Overcoming anxiety disorders without help is very difficult. While disproportionate worries may seem strange or ridiculous to someone not experiencing them, they are not just something you “get over” without targeted strategies, practice, and support.)

So how do I tell if I have an anxiety disorder? And if so, what should I do about it?

As noted above, it is a normal part of life to experience occasional anxiety. However, if you experience anxiety that is persistent, excessive, seemingly uncontrollable, and tied to behavioral disturbance and/or problems with daily functioning, it is likely that you may meet diagnostic criteria for an anxiety disorder. Below is a diagram that can help differential between healthy, “everyday” anxiety and common manifestations of anxiety disorders:

If you are concerned that you or a loved one may have an anxiety disorder, the good news is that there are many treatment options that have proven effective. The most common approaches include some form of psychotherapy and/or medication-based treatment. One of the most common and most effective approaches to treating anxiety disorders is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a type of talk therapy that helps people learn more adaptive ways of thinking, reacting, and behaving in the face of anxiety-provoking situations. Other approaches that may be used instead or in conjunction with CBT techniques include acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), exposure therapy, and mindfulness techniques. In addition, medication-based treatment can often effectively complement the therapeutic approaches described above. While medications will not cure anxiety disorders, they can offer significant relief from symptoms leading to more effective use of learned strategies, coping skills, and therapeutic techniques.

I don’t have an anxiety disorder, but I know someone who does. How can I help?

It can often be intimidating or daunting trying to help someone who is struggling with anxiety. Often, anxious people feel completely overwhelmed and may even experience panic attacks (i.e., abrupt surges of intense fear or discomfort during which one may experience racing heartrate, sweating, shortness of breath, nausea, dizziness, fear of dying, etc.) in the face of what you may think is “no big deal.” Furthermore, if your anxious loved one does not understand their own anxiety yet, they may not be able to guide you in meeting their needs when they are gripped by these feelings and thoughts. Still there are a number of ways you can help those you care about who struggle with anxiety.

Most importantly, educate yourself about anxiety disorders and what can help. Several high-quality resources can be found with just a few keystrokes. Consider exploring literature that can be found from reputable sources such as the American Psychological Association (APA) or the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). You can also ask your loved one directly about their experience in a genuine, supportive, non-threatening, and destigmatizing way.

This bring up another important point – your reaction and support can go a long way in helping to destigmatize your loved one’s anxious experience. Often those who have anxiety disorders are embarrassed by their anxiety symptoms, fearing that they will show up in the most prominent, public, inconvenient ways. They may worry they’re losing their mind or “going crazy,” and they may feel that being out of control of their own anxiety makes them a weak person. It is important that you communicate that you do not see their anxiety as a weakness or character flaw, and further, that you attempt to normalize their experience in any way you can (e.g., I can remember a time when I was worried about what others thought of me…).

Another major way in which you can support those you care about who are struggling with anxiety, is to help them seek professional help from qualified providers who offer therapeutic and/or psychiatric care. If they are already in treatment, you may also ask them to share about what they’re learning and how you can help support the work they’re doing.

If you think you or someone you know may be struggling with an anxiety disorder, please feel free contact the Metis Center for Psychological Services and scheduled a consultation with one of our qualified care providers.