When Anxiety Unravels
We are one seriously anxious nation. Anxiety disorders afflict over 40 million adult Americans every year, making it the most prevalent mental health disorder in the U.S. Going hand in hand with the high rates of anxiety is the rampant use of benzodiazepines, with 13.5 million adults in 2013 prescribed the highly addictive sedatives to help manage an anxiety disorder.
Ironically, if someone becomes chemically dependent on benzos, including such medications as Valium, Xanax, Klonopin, and Ativan, the anxiety symptoms can actually worsen. But when it feels like “I am so anxious I can’t function,” it is understandable that one would reflexively reach for these drugs to simply get through the day.
Life throws all of us regular curveballs that can result in excessive worry. However, a distinction must be made between occasional bouts of “the nerves,” those events or situations that might stoke intense feelings of fear or dread, and an actual anxiety disorder. It is an anxiety disorder when the resulting physical and psychological symptoms become life impairing.
What is Anxiety
Although there are various forms of anxiety, assembled collectively under the anxiety disorders umbrella, in summary anxiety is a mental health condition that is characterized by excessive and persistent feelings of fear, apprehension, and worry. There are different situations or causes that can set up this fear response, which have led to the various designations. In general, when suffering from distress related to an anxiety disorder, it may become more difficult to function. Anxiety can impact relationships, work productivity, academic performance, and family responsibilities.
The causes of anxiety may include:
- Genetics. Science has shown that genetics are a significant risk factor for developing an anxiety disorder. It appears that certain genetic factors can determine one’s susceptibility to anxiety. Some individuals may have difficulty regulating stress hormones, where others might possess resilient when confronted with a stressful situation. These tendencies tend to run in families.
- Environmental. There are several examples of environmental factors that may contribute to anxiety, such as:
- Children of parents who were overbearing and controlling may grow up to have anxiety.
- Parents rejecting their child
- Stressful life events in childhood
- Children modeling parental expressions of anxious behaviors
- Demographic factors, such as being a member of a minority group
- Gender. Women are twice as likely to develop anxiety
- Childhood neglect
- Temperament. Personality traits, including resilience and coping skills, demeanor, shyness, and behavioral inhibition can contribute to the development of anxiety.
- Lifestyle. Substance abuse, excessive caffeine use, and excessive tobacco use can increase anxiety. Regular exercise and a healthy diet can decrease anxiety.
Different Types of Anxiety Disorder
Anxiety is expressed in different ways. Feeling “so anxious I can’t function” may be the result of any of the following types of anxiety, but with one particular dominating feature. Any of the anxiety disorders can cause the severe symptoms that impair the ability to function at daily tasks. The types of anxiety that are included in, or closely aligned with, the anxiety disorder spectrum include:
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). GAD features extreme worry that is out of proportion to the situation at hand. The exaggerated and chronic worrying can result in an inability to function at basic daily tasks, as well as somatic symptoms, or physical ailments, such as headache, stomach problems, and muscle tension.
- Panic Disorder. Panic disorder is characterized by unpredictable and intense physical symptoms similar to a heart attack, such as a racing heart, chest pain, nausea shallow breathing, heart palpitations, and dizziness. Because the attacks come on suddenly without warning, people begin to isolate themselves to avoid a panic attack, which could result in agoraphobia.
- Agoraphobia. Agoraphobia involves intense fear that is triggered when the individual feels they are trapped, helpless, or may be embarrassed, such as on a bus, a plane, in an elevator, on a ship. This type of anxiety disorder may result after a series of panic attacks, and can lead to isolation.
- Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD is related to the anxiety spectrum due to the intense feelings of anxiety that follow experiencing a trauma. An unresolved traumatic event, whether witness or experienced personally, leads to nightmares, hyper-arousal, and unwanted memories, which can lead to avoidance of any situations or people that might trigger the traumatic memories.
- Social Anxiety Disorder. Social anxiety is characterized by sweating, trembling, shallow breathing, nausea, feeling faint or dizzy, and heart palpitations due to a deep fear of being harshly judged and humiliated publicly, which may lead the individual to avoid all types of social interaction and events. This can lead to isolation and loneliness, as well as negatively impacting career opportunities and relationships.
- Specific Phobia. Phobias pertain to the intense and exaggerated fear of a person, place, or thing. The object of fear can lead to irrational and obsessive behaviors as the individual attempts to avoid encountering or triggering the extreme fear that it provokes, leading to avoiding any potential exposure to the specific phobia.
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). OCD is characterized by symptoms of intense anxiety related to an irrational fear. Examples are fear of germs or contamination, fear of angry or aggressive impulses, or an obsessive need for orderliness, cleanliness, or symmetry. In response to the fear, individuals adopt compulsive behaviors to help manage the anxiety that the irrational obsession induces.
Tips for Overcoming Severe Anxiety Symptoms in the Moment
Depending on the specific type of anxiety disorder, symptoms may emerge unexpectedly. This may happen right before a stress-inducing event, such as giving a speech or enduring a job interview, which can seriously impact performance. Having some helpful tools at the ready to access should feelings of distress become overwhelming is critical. These holistic activities are rooted in relaxation methods that help calm the mind and body simultaneously. They include:
- Mindfulness. Training the mind to focus on the here and now, versus lurching into the fear-based anticipation of what might go wrong, is helpful when approaching a stressful situation. Using mindfulness, individuals will coach themselves to rein in all thought distractions, and to concentrate mindfully on the present moment. By purposefully directing the mind toward the present, taking into account all the sensory input, they then accept the present feelings without self-judgment and remind themselves that the feeling will soon pass. Focusing on the breathing rhythm, the in and out motion of the diaphragm, the individual can quickly reduce heart rate, decrease blood pressure, and calm the mind.
- Deep breathing. One of the fastest methods to achieve relaxation is through a deep breathing exercise. Like mindfulness, deep breathing techniques can be practiced anywhere at any time. There are several variations, but a common deep breathing exercise is the 7-4-7. This involves slowly inhaling as much air as possible while counting to seven, holding the breath for a count of four, and then slowly releasing the breath through the mouth for a count of seven—pushing out as much air as possible. Do this consecutively, 4 or 5 times, to experience notably less tension in the body.
- Smartphone apps. There is a wide variety of meditation applications available for download onto the smartphone. This allows the individual to go sit in their car or other quiet space and tune in to guided meditation or soothing spa music. These are handy tools that can be swiftly accessed when feelings of anxiety begin to increase.
- Holistic products When the symptoms of distress begin to emerge, go on the offensive and fix a cup of chamomile tea to help relax. Avoid caffeinated beverages, as these will only increase the sense that you’re “so anxious I can’t function.” Vitamin B12 can reduce symptoms of anxiety. Also, keep some diluted stress-reducing essential oils handy that can be applied to the skin, such as tea tree oil, lavender, or orange oil.
Treatment for Anxiety Disorders
When anxiety symptoms have ratcheted up to the point where it impairs normal daily functioning it is appropriate to obtain help from a mental health professional. Anxiety treatment can be provided in an outpatient setting, such as by a private practice psychiatrist or psychotherapist. The usual course of treatment for anxiety disorders involves both medication and psychotherapy.
Medication: In many cases, the doctor or psychiatrist will prescribe a benzodiazepine to help manage sporadic anxiety events, as these sedatives work swiftly to reduce tension and bring about relaxation. There is a risk of addiction, however, as this class of drugs is prone to abuse. Other medications prescribed for anxiety disorder include antidepressants, mood stabilizers, and anti-psychotics.
Psychotherapy: The use of one-on-one talk therapy is central to anxiety disorder treatment. These therapy sessions allow the individual to explore potential triggers and then learn more effective ways to manage them. The most commonly used evidence-based therapies for anxiety treatment include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), and prolonged exposure therapy.
Holistic activities: Activities that help induce relaxation are complementary to the core treatment plan, and might include yoga, massage therapy, acupuncture, regular exercise, and keeping a journal.
The Treatment Specialist Online Resource for Mental Health
The Treatment Specialist is a trusted team of mental health specialists who provide important information about mental health, addiction, and dual diagnosis disorders. When severe impairment leaves you feeling, “I’m so anxious I can’t function,” contact a Treatment Specialist for help determining the best treatment options for your particular type of anxiety disorder. Call our helpful team today at (866) 644-7911.