Everyone experiences anxiety at some point in his or her life. People become anxious when they have to face a highly stressful situation like taking a test, going for a job interview or getting married. When one is anxious and under stress, the body reacts; hands become clammy, the heart beats a little faster; one can even feel lightheaded or dizzy. Some people become preoccupied with fear and worry, and the intense feelings of anxiety continue. If this happens, an individual may have an anxiety disorder.
One in six Canadians is affected by an anxiety disorder. Anxiety can take the form of panic disorder, phobia or obsessive-compulsive disorder. Without treatment an individual's physical, mental and emotional health may be in jeopardy. Anxiety disorders can also lead to alcohol and/or drug abuse, family problems, depression, and in some cases, suicide.
People with obsessive compulsive disorder experience unwanted thoughts that make no sense but nevertheless cause the individual to feel anxious. Irrational thoughts may concern contaminating themselves or others with dirt or germs, or they may be obsessed about their own safety or the safety of a loved one. In response to their obsessive thoughts, individuals may need to think neutralizing thoughts or to perform certain compulsive rituals, including repetitive hand washing or counting. As with phobias, a traumatic event can trigger obsessive thoughts or behaviour. People who are described as perfectionists however seem more prone than others to develop obsessions. If untreated, this condition can result in severe impairment in many psychological areas as well as affect relationships and life at school or work.
A phobia is an irrational and uncontrollable fear of an object or a situation. It is unclear how phobias start, but if an individual is prone to excessive anxiety and stress, he or she is more likely to be vulnerable to panic attacks and phobias. People with phobias experience feelings of intense panic when confronted by whatever it is that frightens them and go to considerable lengths to avoid the object or situation. An individual with a phobia may experience the physical feelings of panic when confronted with the feared situation. Types of phobias are:
On average, 1 out of 3 young adults reports having had a panic attack in the last year. During a panic attack, sensations such as sweating, nausea, trembling and numbness in the legs or hands, dizziness, hot or cold flashes, a feeling of tightness or pressure in the chest, hyperventilation, 'jelly' legs or blurred vision can develop. Individuals may even feel like they are going to die of a heart attack or lose control of their body functions. These intense feelings of panic usually do not last for very long and most people brush off the episode as a momentary 'freak out.' Some people become very agitated however, and develop a fear of it happening again. If an individual has more than four panic attacks within a month or a panic attack occurs when the individual is not in an anxious or stressful situation, it is probable that the individual has a panic disorder. Individuals who are susceptible to panic attacks are more likely to be concerned with illness, death or losing control. Panic disorders usually begin before the individual is 20-30 years old.
There has been a lot of progress in the understanding and diagnosis of the various forms of anxiety disorders. Treatment is specific to the severity of the disorder. The most effective forms of therapy are based on cognitive and behavioural approaches. Individuals may also learn calming techniques and meditative therapy and anti-depressant medication can be prescribed to help their anxiety. In most cases therapy will help the individual get better and lead a productive life.
If you or a loved one appears to be suffering from an anxiety disorder, you should contact your family physician, the Ontario Psychiatric Association or the Freedom From Fear Foundation in Toronto which is an organization established to help people with anxiety disorders. They have a network of support groups set up throughout Ontario - (416) 761-6006.