It is our life
Fear and anxiety are a normal--even essential--part of life. They prepare us for danger, creating physiological changes that enable us to effectively respond to a threat. Fear is very straightforward. It arises in response to immediate danger, so it is usually unexpected, very intense, and limited to the situation at hand. Your response to the fear, such as jumping out of the path of an oncoming car, quickly resolves the situation.
As long as there's a good reason for fear or anxiety, and it doesn't interfere with the ability to work, play, and socialize, it is not considered a problem. But when anxiety takes on a life of its own and begins to disrupt everyday activities, the situation is no longer normal. A genuine emotional disorder is now at work... and it's time to see a doctor.
Effective treatments for anxiety disorders are available, and research is yielding new, improved therapies that can help most people with anxiety disorders lead productive, fulfilling lives. If you think you have an anxiety disorder, you should seek information and treatment.
Scientists research depression
Using brain imaging technologies and neurochemical techniques, scientists are finding that a network of interacting structures is responsible for these emotions. Much research centers on the amygdala, an almond-shaped structure deep within the brain. The amygdala is believed to serve as a communications hub between the parts of the brain that process incoming sensory signals and the parts that interpret them. It can signal that a threat is present, and trigger a fear response or anxiety. It appears that emotional memories stored in the central part of the amygdala may play a role in disorders involving very distinct fears, like phobias, while different parts may be involved in other forms of anxiety.
By learning more about brain circuitry involved in fear and anxiety, scientists may be able to devise new and more specific treatments for anxiety disorders. For example, it someday may be possible to increase the influence of the thinking parts of the brain on the amygdala, thus placing the fear and anxiety response under conscious control.
In addition, with new findings about neurogenesis (birth of new brain cells) throughout life, perhaps a method will be found to stimulate growth of new neurons in the hippocampus in people with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Scientists are also conducting clinical trials to find the most effective ways of treating anxiety disorders. For example, one trial is examining how well medication and behavioral therapies work together and separately in the treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Another trial is assessing the safety and efficacy of medication treatments for anxiety disorders in children and adolescents with co-occurring attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. For more information about clinical trials, for example the National Library of Medicine's clinical trials database.
Major depression, the kind of depression that will most likely benefit from treatment with medications, is more than just "the blues." It is a condition that lasts 2 weeks or more, and interferes with a person's ability to carry on daily tasks and enjoy activities that previously brought pleasure. Depression is associated with abnormal functioning of the brain. An interaction between genetic tendency and life history appears to determine a person's chance of becoming depressed. Episodes of depression may be triggered by stress, difficult life events, side effects of medications, or medication/substance withdrawal, or even viral infections that can affect the brain.
Faced by a threat, your body responds with a complex cascade of chemicals. The hypothalamus, alerted by the brain, pumps out a specialized hormone that ultimately prompts the two adrenal glands (perched atop the kidneys) to release the energizing hormone known as adrenaline. The result--faster pulse, higher blood pressure, sharpened awareness--is the "fight or flight" response to fear and anxiety.
Anxiety treatment: strategies
Stress management techniques and meditation may help you to calm yourself and enhance the effects of therapy, although there is as yet no scientific evidence to support the value of these "wellness" approaches to recovery from anxiety disorders. There is preliminary evidence that aerobic exercise may be of value, and it is known that caffeine, illicit drugs, and even some over-the-counter cold medications can aggravate the symptoms of an anxiety disorder. Check with your physician or pharmacist before taking any additional medicines.
Most people with depression can get help from treatment. For most people, spotting depression early and getting it treated might cut down on how long and how serious the depression is. The most common treatments are antidepressant medicines, "talk" therapy, or a combination of both. You and your doctor can work together to decide on the right depression treatment for you.
Symptoms of depression
Depressed people will seem sad, or "down," or may be unable to enjoy their normal activities. They may have no appetite and lose weight (although some people eat more and gain weight when depressed). They may sleep too much or too little, have difficulty going to sleep, sleep restlessly, or awaken very early in the morning. They may speak of feeling guilty, worthless, or hopeless; they may lack energy or be jumpy and agitated. They may think about killing themselves and may even make a suicide attempt. Some depressed people have delusions (false, fixed ideas) about poverty, sickness, or sinfulness that are related to their depression. Often feelings of depression are worse at a particular time of day, for instance, every morning or every evening.
Feelings associated with anxiety include impatience, apprehensiveness, irritability, and decreased ability to concentrate. People suffering from anxiety may also worry, for no particular reason, that something bad is going to happen to themselves or their loved ones. Individuals with anxiety disorders may make such statements as:
- I always thought I was just a worrier, but I would worry about things for days, to the point where I couldn't even sleep.
- I had a very strong feeling of impending doom, like I was losing control in an extreme way.
- I was always worried that if I didn't do certain things, my parents were going to die.
- I felt as if my heart was going to explode, and I couldn't calm down.
Not everyone who is depressed has all depression's symptoms, but everyone who is depressed has at least some of them, co-existing, on most days. Depression can range in intensity from mild to severe. Depression can co-occur with other medical disorders such as cancer, heart disease, stroke, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, and diabetes. In such cases, the depression is often overlooked and is not treated. If the depression is recognized and treated, a person's quality of life can be greatly improved.
Medicine for anxiety disorders
Although there are numerous chemicals that perform vital functions within the brain, three basic chemicals, or neurotransmitters, seem most critical in regulating this process and maintaining balance: serotonin, which is related to anxiety, depression, and aggression; dopamine, which affects reality perception and pleasurable experiences; and norepinephrine, which affects attention, concentration, and mood.
Medication is most helpful when there is clear disorder or, sometimes, a specific target symptom for a particular drug. Usually, a pattern of symptoms point to a specific chemical imbalance. Whenever an imbalance appears evident through a person's disordered behavior and emotional state, medication centers on modifying the strength of the signal or readjusting the balance among them.
Help in getting treatment
If you, or someone you know, has symptoms of anxiety, a visit to the family physician is usually the best place to start. A physician can help determine whether the symptoms are due to an anxiety disorder, some other medical condition, or both. Frequently, the next step in getting treatment for an anxiety disorder is referral to a mental health professional.
Among the professionals who can help are psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, and counselors. However, it's best to look for a professional who has specialized training in cognitive-behavioral therapy and/or behavioral therapy, as appropriate, and who is open to the use of medications, should they be needed.
It's important that you feel comfortable with the therapy that the mental health professional suggests. If this is not the case, seek help elsewhere. However, if you've been taking medication, it's important not to discontinue it abruptly, as stated before. Certain drugs have to be tapered off under the supervision of your physician.
Our eating maybe root of anxiety
Although it's uncommon, certain medical problems can mimic the symptoms of anxiety, or even produce it. The palpitations and shortness of breath caused by an irregular heartbeat can easily be mistaken for anxiety. A clot in the lung (pulmonary embolism) often causes unexplained feelings of anxiety. Neurological problems such as epilepsy and brain disorders can be responsible for symptoms of anxiety. So can anemia, diabetes, thyroid disease, and adrenal problems. In general, these symptoms will disappear when the underlying disease is brought under control, although the anxiety sometimes requires separate treatment.
Diet also can be a culprit. The most common dietary offenders are caffeine and caffeine-like substances found in coffee, tea, and many soft drinks. In sensitive individuals, the jitteriness precipitated by caffeine can reach panic levels. In rare cases, extreme vitamin deficiencies may also lead to anxiety.
Causes of fears
Experts have yet to agree on the root cause of anxiety disorders. In fact, most concede that several factors may be at work in each case.
Learning theory views anxiety as a learned behavior that can be unlearned. This theory posits that a person's anxiety can be reduced by persistently confronting the feared situation or object. And some people do, in fact, change their thinking and experience significant relief without any medication.
Psychoanalytic theory holds that anxiety stems from unconscious conflict arising from discomfort or distress during childhood. Once the source of the anxiety is identified, it can be eliminated by resolving the underlying conflict. However, most studies find that people with anxiety disorders come from stable homes, with childhood backgrounds similar to those of people without anxiety disorders.
An imbalance in these neurotransmitters can cause a corresponding shift in our thoughts. But is the reverse also true? Can a determined change in our thinking alter the chemistry in the brain? Many experts are convinced this is true; and behavioral therapy aimed at changing our reactions does, in fact, cure many problems. Indeed, for some disorders, such as phobias, this type of therapy remains the most effective alternative.
Terms on this page
- A state of uneasiness and apprehension, as about future uncertainties.
- Worry or tension in response to real or imagined stress, danger, or dreaded situations. Physical reactions such as fast pulse, sweating, trembling, fatigue, and weakness may accompany anxiety.
- A psychiatric disorder involving the presence of anxiety that is so intense or so frequently present that it causes difficulty or distress for the individual.
- Any of various disorders in which anxiety is either the primary disturbance or is the result of confronting a feared situation or object; they include obsessive-compulsive disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder.
- Fear is an unpleasant feeling of perceived risk or danger, whether it be real or imagined.
- In psychiatry, a symptom of mood disorder characterized by intense feelings of loss, sadness, hopelessness, failure, and rejection.
- A state of emotional and psychological well-being in which an individual is able to use his or her cognitive and emotional capabilities, function in society, and meet the ordinary demands of everyday life.
- The psychological state of someone who is functioning at a satisfactory level of emotional and behavioral adjustment.
- A state of extreme difficulty, pressure, or strain.
- A physical and psychological response that results from being exposed to a demand or pressure.