Mental Health Minute

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What is Anxiety?

Anxiety is the body’s natural response to a stressful or dangerous situation. In these situations, the body reacts by causing the heart to beat faster, the palms to sweat and the mind to race. These are normal responses to stress and danger that we have all experienced when public speaking or walking down a dark alley alone. The physical symptoms are the result of stress hormones like adrenaline activating your body. They’re not generally dangerous but they can be uncomfortable when you don’t know why they’re occurring.

An anxiety disorder is when one’s body reacts to a situation as though it is highly stressful but in fact the situation is not that dangerous. In many cases, the person recognizes these fears as irrational, yet they are unable to control how their body is reacting.

If you have broken into a cold sweat with your heart pounding while waiting in line at the supermarket, you may be suffering from an anxiety disorder. Reacting this way is not your fault. These conditions are medical disorders and help is available.

What are the symptoms of an anxiety disorder?

After experiencing such panic attacks, individuals with anxiety disorder often begin to avoid certain things, like road trips and airplanes, only entering situations if there is a chance of escape.

Agoraphobia, a type of anxiety disorder, is the fear of being in places or situations which would be difficult to escape from, or in which it would be difficult to find help, should a person suffer a panic attack. People with agoraphobia often avoid public transport or shopping malls; others refuse to leave their homes, sometimes for years at a time.

Social anxiety disorder, or social phobia is another form of anxiety where people suffer from extreme shyness and fear social interactions like meeting new people, speaking to others or social events. The focus of the fear is on being judged or scrutinized by others about how you look, what you say or what you assume people are thinking about you. It results in avoiding social situations or tolerating them with great distress, or abusing alcohol or substances to try and tolerate the fear.

Generalized anxiety disorder is an ongoing feeling of worry and physical anxiety that is there most all of the time. It may never build up to a panic attack. The worry is usually about normal things like family, finances, health etc.

Many individuals with anxiety disorders have difficulty with relationships, school, work and social activities.

Who gets anxiety disorders?

Anxiety disorders, including phobias and panic disorder, are among the most common of mental health problems. It is estimated that 2 million Canadians suffer from panic disorders. Women are roughly twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with panic disorder.

How can anxiety disorders be treated?

Treatment exists to help people with phobias and panic disorder, and research into new therapies and techniques continues. Currently, the best-evidenced ways to treat an anxiety disorder include medication, cognitive-behaviour therapy (CBT) or a combination of the two. Treatment choice will depend on the type of anxiety disorder as well as any additional illnesses such as depression or alcohol abuse.

Another useful technique includes relaxation training.

More information

For further information about anxiety, disorder and agoraphobia contact a community organization or your family doctor to find out about support and resources available in your community.

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