Eastern Michigan University

Anxiety Disorders

That first date, an important job interview, the big speech, a critical test... times when most people feel a little anxious. Sweaty palms and "butterflies" in the stomach during challenging situations are normal. Anxiety disorders, however, differ dramatically from ordinary feelings of nervousness. The symptoms of these disorders can be overwhelming and make the simplest of life's routines a source of nearly unbearable discomfort.

What are Anxiety Disorders?

Anxiety disorders are the most common of emotional disorders, annually affecting more than 20 million Americans (approximately one in nine). There are several different types of disorders.

Generalized Anxiety Disorders (GAD)

Excessive anxiety and worry that is difficult to control, along with feelings of restlessness, difficulty concentrating, irritability, muscle tension, sleep disturbance (difficulty falling or staying asleep), or being easily fatigued.

Phobias

Excessive or unreasonable fear of certain objects or situations that are avoided or endured with intense distress. Examples: Specific phobias, such as fear of snakes; Social phobias, such as fear of meeting new people; and Agoraphobia, such as being afraid to go outside alone.

Panic Disorder

An intense period of fear or discomfort, characterized by accelerated heart rate, sweating, trembling or shaking, shortness of breath, chest pain, dizziness, numbness, and/or a fear of losing control or dying, is followed by persistent worries about further panic attacks and their implications.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Involuntary, repeated, unwanted thoughts, impulses, or images are experienced (obsessions) and repetitive behaviors or mental acts (compulsions) are devised to attempt to control or neutralize them. Obsessions are persistent, sometimes disturbing or senseless ideas, such as continually worrying about germs or chronic doubting. Examples of compulsions include repetitive cleaning, checking, or counting.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

May occur in individuals who have survived or witnessed a severe or terrifying physical or emotional event, such as combat, violent personal attack (e.g., rape), or a natural disaster. The event is re-experienced through recurrent nightmares or memories, flashbacks, and extreme emotional, mental, and physical distress when exposed to situations similar to the trauma. The person may feel detached from others, lose interest in significant activities, have difficulty concentrating or falling (or staying) asleep, become hyper-vigilant or develop an exaggerated startle response.

Symptoms of Anxiety
  • Worry or fear that something bad will happen
  • Trembling, twitching, or feeling shaky
  • Fatigue or restlessness
  • Muscle tension or jitteriness
  • Feeling dizzy or lightheaded
  • Fast heartbeat or breathing rate
  • Sweating, cold or clammy hands
  • Dry mouth, nausea, or diarrhea
  • Irritability, impatience, easily distracted

Some of these symptoms may occur in anyone experiencing a difficult situation. The line between such "normal" anxiety and an anxiety disorder is crossed if overwhelming tension occurs even when there is no real danger. People with an anxiety disorder may go to extreme measures to avoid the source of their anxiety.

What Causes Anxiety Disorder?

Causes of anxiety disorders are complex and can involve biological, psychological, and cognitive factors.

  • Anxiety disorders run in families. For example, if one identical twin has an anxiety disorder, the second twin is likely to have an anxiety disorder as well, which suggests that genetics—possibly in combination with life experiences—makes some people more susceptible to these illnesses.
  • Brain chemistry: Symptoms are often relieved by medications that alter levels of chemicals in the brain.
  • Psychological: Anxiety can reflect psychic conflict between unacceptable thoughts, feelings, wishes, desires and impulses, possibly aggressive or sexual, and internal prohibition against such thoughts and feelings.
  • Behavioral: An everyday event or object starts to become scary after it is repeatedly associated with a frightening experience.
  • Cognitive factors: The way people interpret or think about stressful events can have a strong effect on anxiety.
Deciding to Seek Help

Anxiety disorders often interfere with jobs, family, and social responsibilities. For example, people with agoraphobia may drop out of school because they are too afraid to leave their homes. Completing compulsive rituals can leave someone with no time for homework or friends. People with PTSD may have nightmares and get very little sleep, leaving them too tired to play with their children or work. Someone might refuse a job in a high-rise building due to a fear of elevators.

Professional psychological and medical treatment can help reduce and eliminate the symptoms of anxiety disorders. Enrolled students at EMU can receive free counseling at Counseling Services. Call 734.487.1118 for an appointment.

Treatments for Anxiety

The goal of psychological therapy for anxiety disorders is to resolve any emotional conflicts that may have led to the disorder, to express feelings, and to permit confronting, slowly, the feared situations or objects. As fears are gradually confronted, the symptoms of anxiety are reduced.

Three types of psychotherapy have been used successfully to address the symptoms of anxiety disorders.

  • Behavior therapy uses relaxation techniques and exposure to the feared object or situation in a carefully planned, gradual manner so that the individual experiences a reduction in anxious responses.
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy helps people understand their patterns of thinking so that they can react differently to situations that cause anxiety.
  • Psychodynamic psychotherapy helps people understand the unconscious and developmental origins of their anxiety, thereby reducing the need for symptoms.

For some anxiety disorders, medication may be helpful in conjunction with talk therapy.

What You Can Do Now to Relieve Symptoms

Relaxation and breathing exercises can help in treating anxiety and the hyperventilation that occurs with high levels of anxiety. When your body is completely relaxed, it is nearly impossible to feel anxious. The steps below can help you learn these techniques at home.

Try a Helpful Breathing Exercise
Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Before doing this exercise, consider any injuries you might have. You may want to avoid stressing sore or injured muscle groups. Persons with chronic headaches may want to avoid the tension portion of this exercise and only do the relaxation portion.

  1. Make yourself as comfortable as possible in your favorite chair, on the floor, in bed or wherever you feel comfortable. Loosen tight clothing, uncross legs and arms, and close your eyes.
  2. Take a deep breath, hold it, and then let it out very slowly. Continue to breathe deeply and slowly throughout this procedure.
  3. Extend your arms along your sides and make a tight fist. Do this for 10 seconds while thinking about how tense your hands are.
  4. Unclench your fists and let your arms fall limply to your lap. Relax for 15 seconds, breathing deeply and noticing how comfortable, warm, and pleasant your hands feel.
  5. Now open and flex your hands as much as possible (the opposite of making a fist). Hold this for 10 seconds and think about how tense your hands are.
  6. Let your arms fall back into your lap again and relax for 15 seconds, breathing deeply. Notice how comfortable, warm, and pleasant your hands feel.
  7. Repeat this procedure, tensing and relaxing individual sets of muscles, then the opposing set of muscles. After the hands, you may want to try biceps - triceps, mouth open - mouth closed, eyes open – eyes closed, shoulders forward – shoulders back, and so on. Cover the entire body, then enjoy a period of quiet relaxation, breathing deeply and slowly.
  8. Emerge from progressive relaxation gradually, starting by wiggling your fingers and toes, then smile and enjoy the moment.
For More Information on Anxiety Disorders

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