Winning Over Worry
Every human feels anxiety on occasion; it is a part of life. All of us know
what it is like to feel worry, nervousness, fear, and concern. We feel nervous
when we have to give a speech, go for a job interview, or walk into our boss’s
office for the annual performance appraisal. We know it’s normal to feel
a surge of fear when we unexpectedly see a photo of a snake or look down from
the top of a tall building. Most of us manage these kinds of anxious feelings
fairly well and are able to carry on with our lives without much difficulty.
These feelings don’t disrupt our lives.
But millions of people (an estimated 15% of the population) suffer from excessive
worrying that is devastating and that severely affects their lives, sometimes
resulting in living in highly restricted ways. These people experience panic
attacks, phobias, extreme shyness, obsessive thoughts, and compulsive behaviors.
The feeling of anxiety is a constant and dominating force that disrupts their
lives. Some become prisoners in their own homes, unable to leave to work, drive,
or visit the grocery store. For these people, anxiety is much more than just
an occasional wave of apprehension.
Types of Anxiety Disorders
An anxiety disorder affects a person’s behavior, thoughts, feelings,
and physical sensations. The most common anxiety disorders include the following:
- Social anxiety or social phobia is a fear of being around other people. People
who suffer from this disorder always feel self-conscious around others. They
have the feeling that everyone is watching them and staring at them, being
critical in some way. Because the anxiety is so painful, they learn to stay
away from social situations and avoid other people. Some eventually need to
be alone at all times, in a room with the door closed. The feeling is pervasive
and constant and even happens with people they know.
People who have social anxiety know that their thoughts and fears are not
rational. They are aware that others are not actually judging or evaluating
them at every moment. But this knowledge does not make the feelings disappear.
- Panic disorder is a condition where a person has panic attacks without warning.
According to the National Institutes of Mental Health, about 5% of the adult
American population suffers from panic attacks. Some experts say that this
number is actually higher, since many people experience panic attacks but never
Common symptoms of panic include:
- Racing or pounding heart
- Sweaty palms
- Feelings of terror
- Chest pains or heaviness in the chest
- Dizziness and lightheadedness
- Fear of dying
- Fear of going crazy
- Fear of losing control
- Feeling unable to catch one’s breath
- Tingling in the hands, feet,
legs, or arms
A panic attack typically lasts several minutes and is extremely
upsetting and frightening. In some cases, panic attacks last
longer than a few minutes or strike several times in a short time period.
A panic attack is often followed by feelings of depression and helplessness.
Most people who have experienced panic say that the greatest fear is that the
panic attack will happen again.
Many times, the person who has a panic attack doesn’t know what caused
it. It seems to have come “out of the blue.” At other times, people
report that they were feeling extreme stress or had encountered difficult times
and weren’t surprised that they had a panic attack.
- Generalized anxiety disorder is quite common, affecting an estimated 3
to 4% of the population. This disorder fills a person’s life with worry,
anxiety, and fear. People who have this disorder are always thinking and dwelling
on the “what ifs” of every situation. It feels like there is
no way out of the vicious cycle of anxiety and worry. The person often
becomes depressed about life and their inability to stop worrying.
People who have generalized anxiety usually do not avoid situations, and they
don’t generally have panic attacks. They can become incapacitated by
an inability to shut the mind off, and are overcome with feelings of worry,
dread, fatigue, and a loss of interest in life. The person usually realizes
these feelings are irrational, but the feelings are also very real. The person’s
mood can change from day to day, or even hour to hour. Feelings of anxiety
and mood swings become a pattern that severely disrupts the quality of life.
People with generalized anxiety disorder often have physical symptoms including
headaches, irritability, frustration, trembling, inability to concentrate,
and sleep disturbances. They may also have symptoms of social phobia and panic
Other types of anxiety disorders include:
- Phobia, fearing a specific object or situation.
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
(OCD), a system of ritualized behaviors or obsessions that are driven by
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), severe anxiety
that is triggered by memories of a past traumatic experience.
disabling fear that prevents one from leaving home or another safe place.
Most people who suffer from anxiety disorders begin to feel better when they
receive the proper treatment. It can be difficult to identify the correct treatment,
however, because each person's anxiety is caused by a unique set of factors.
It can be frustrating for the client when treatment is not immediately successful
or takes longer than hoped for. Some clients feel better after a few weeks
or months of treatment, while others may need a year or more. If a person has
an anxiety disorder in combination with another disorder (such as alcoholism
and depression), treatment is more complicated and takes longer.
While a treatment plan must be specifically designed for each individual,
there are a number of standard approaches. Mental health professionals who
specialize in treating anxiety most often use a combination of the following
treatments. There is no single correct approach.
The client learns how to identify and change unproductive thought patterns
by observing his or her feelings and learning to separate realistic from unrealistic
thoughts. This is a very successful approach and often works much more quickly
than the traditional "talk therapy". The client is given exercises
and "homework" so that he can practice positive self-talk and he
then learns how to eliminate or significantly decrease the negative critic
within often operating on a subconscious level. Becoming aware of how your
negative self-talk affects your excessive worry and lowers self-esteem is a
major step towards being able to reduce these thoughts and thereby decreasing
This treatment helps the client alter and control unwanted behavior. Systematic
desensitization, a type of behavior therapy, is often used to help people with
phobias and OCD. The client is exposed to anxiety-producing stimuli one small
step at a time, gradually increasing his or her tolerance to situations that
have produced disabling anxiety.
Many people with anxiety disorders benefit from self-hypnosis, guided visualization,
meditation and biofeedback. Relaxation training is often part of psychotherapy.
Antidepressant and anti-anxiety medications can help restore chemical imbalances
that cause symptoms of anxiety. This is an effective treatment for many people,
especially in combination with psychotherapy.
The treatment for an anxiety disorder depends on the severity and length of
the problem. The client's willingness to actively participate in treatment
is also an important factor. When a person with panic is motivated to try new
behaviors and practice new skills and techniques, he or she can learn to change
the way the brain responds to familiar thoughts and feelings that have previously
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