A human being’s natural reaction to danger is to fight or flee. This reaction began in a time when stress and danger were almost always physical such as being confronted by a dangerous animal. To prepare for action, changes occur in the body: the pulse quickens, blood pressure increases, breathing becomes faster and muscles become tense. In addition, blood is directed away from the digestive tract and skin in order to supply muscles with the necessary oxygen, which may result in feelings of queasiness, tingling, or numbness, as well as “rubbery” legs.
In modern society, however, a situation that is dangerous, or that is perceived as dangerous, is usually nonphysical —such as the fear that you might be fired from your job. Then the “fight or flight” response, with all its symptoms is known as anxiety.
Some anxiety is normal and even beneficial. For instance, if it is true that you might be fired, the resulting anxiety could motivate you to look for another job. However, some people suffer from anxiety that has no identifiable cause. In such individuals the anxiety reaction is exaggerated and may be accompanied by feeling dread, doom, or fear that they will lose control or “go crazy”. This kind of anxiety is inappropriate and can become overwhelming or even incapacitating. It is in theses severe cases that treatment becomes necessary. Fortunately, anxiety is relatively easy to treat and need not interfere with your daily life. Anxiety is slightly more common in women than it is in men, and adolescents and the elderly seem to be particularly susceptible to it.
Kinds of Anxiety
Anxiety can take many different forms. The following are the more common kinds of emotional disorders characterized by anxiety:
These are sudden, spontaneous, and unexplainable bouts of severe anxiety. They are characterized by rapid, shallow breathing, sweating, palpitations, chest pain, feelings of intense terror or impending doom, a sensation of choking or smothering and a feeing of alienation—of being out of touch with the surrounding world. The attack usually lasts for only a few minutes, but on rare occasions may persist for several hours.
Panic attacks often begin in adolescence or early adulthood, but they may also start later in life. A complication is that people who experience such attacks also begin to feel a sense of helplessness or loss of control, especially if the attacks occur in public.
Thus, the individual may avoid going out alone, if at all, for fear that an attack may occur.
Generalized anxiety disorder
This is an ongoing, persistent feeling of anxiety that invades the victim’s life by causing jitteriness, apprehension, inability to concentrate, and sleep problems, such as nightmares or insomnia. Family and friends—indeed anyone with whom the individual comes into contact—see him or her as being on edge, impatient, and irritable. Often this kind of anxiety is linked with mild depression. In addition, physical ailments that have no apparent cause such as palpitations, stomach upsets, and various aches and pains, may be experienced.
A phobia, a more specific form of anxiety, is an extreme fear of a particular object, activity, or situation. Common phobias include fear of flying, heights, certain animals, and enclosed spaces such as elevators. Unlike other types of anxiety, which are spontaneous, phobias are triggered only by a particular situation. Contact with the dreaded situation results in panic and the urge to escape. People who suffer from phobias will often go to any length to avoid confronting these situations, even to the extent of rearranging their lives.
One special type of phobia, agoraphobia, is a fear of public places from which escape might be difficult (such as a crowded theater) or where aid might be unavailable if the victim should suddenly be incapacitated. This fear may be linked with panic attacks and become so extreme that the individual refuses to leave the safety of home. Another type of phobia is social phobia, the feat of scrutiny or of behaving in a humiliating or embarrassing manner. Phobias can usually be traced to a traumatic event in the individual’s past. Animal phobias often begin in childhood. A morbid fear of dogs, for example, can stem from being bitten by a dog at an early age.
Obsessions can be defined as persistent, recurrent ideas, thoughts, or images that are intrusive and repellent. (An example of an obsessive thought is the idea of murdering someone, perhaps a close relative.) A compulsion is a repetitive behavior that is done in a certain ritualized manner. A person with a compulsion may subconsciously believe that the behavior will somehow influence the future and thus prevent some dreaded event from happening. Continual hand washing, for example, may be performed if the person is afraid of becoming contaminated. If the individual attempts to resist the compulsion, he or she experiences an overwhelming feeling of anxiety, which is relieved as soon as the compulsive act is performed once again. Other common compulsions include repeated checking or counting of figures and repeatedly touching objects or pieces of clothing.
Obsessive-compulsive behavior is relatively rare and seems to occur about equally in men and women. This disorder usually begins in adolescence or early childhood.
Post-traumatic stress disorder
A person may experience symptoms of extreme anxiety following an unusual, traumatic event, such as a rape, assault, natural disaster, war, or torture. The stress disorder may begin soon after the event and the taper off or occur some time after the event and last months or even years. The individual may feel depressed, detached, or estranged from his or her surroundings and may be bothered by other persistent emotions, such as guilt for having survived when others did not. He or she may also relive the episode in dreams, thoughts, or even actions.
There are a number of effective treatments available, including the use of tranquilizing drugs and psycho-therapy, that can help those suffering from anxiety lead comfortable and productive lives.
Your doctor may prescribe a drug that will aid in relieving your anxiety, especially if it is seriously hampering your life. Minor tranquilizers or anti-anxiety agents will help you cope with anxiety attacks or with generalized anxiety. These drugs will also help you sleep better and diminish any physical symptoms you may be experiencing as a result of anxiety. If your doctor thinks that you might be depressed or suffering from a severe phobia, he or she may also prescribe an antidepressant.
Although there are many schools of thought on this, psychotherapy may help you to uncover and deal with the problems that are causing your anxiety. In addition, you can learn effective methods for coping with stress.
Behavior modification therapy
This method is often used to treat phobias and obsessive-compulsive disorders. A common form of behavior modification therapy is desensitization, which involves gradually exposing the person to the dreaded situation and offering encouragement when he or she is able to confront the situation without anxiety. For example, an agoraphobic might be helped in a series of graduated steps to encounter the crowds and public places that cause anxiety.
If you are aware of what is causing your anxiety, you may be able to remove the cause yourself. For example, if your work situation is making you feel excessively anxious, you might consider changing your job. Physical exercise is also a wonderful stress reliever. You can also learn muscle-relaxation exercises or biofeedback techniques for use when confronted with an anxiety-producing situation.
Anxiety is a normal part of dealing with stress. However, if emotional conflicts are not resolved by talking them over with family or friends and if the anxiety produces undue distress, professional help is advisable. Remember, no one is immune to anxiety. The important thing is to recognize anxiety when it is a medical problem and to work with a doctor or counselor to reduce it to a manageable level, if not relieve it entirely.