Is anxiety a real mental illness?

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What is anxiety?

According to the Encyclopedia of Psychology, anxiety is an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes.

An individual living with an anxiety disorder typically experiences recurring intrusive thoughts and avoids situations out of fear / worry. They also may experience physical symptoms, such as sweating, trembling, dizziness, rapid heartbeat, stomachache, nausea, muscle pain, headaches, fatigue, loss of libido, breathing problems, and insomnia. (APA, Healthline)

Anxiety is a common emotion that we all experience sometimes. Fear, worry, and nervousness are unavoidable emotions because life is unpredictable. You may anxiety prior to making a life-changing decision, before taking a test, or when facing a problem at work. (NIMH) When we experience fear, worry, or nervousness, it can also be a sign of growth, because we are facing something we have never faced before. Anxiety disorders, on the other hand, can be debilitating and disrupt one’s quality of life. Symptoms can impact one’s relationships and / or performance at school or work.  Unlike typical anxiety, anxiety disorders are not temporary worry or fear.

There are various types of anxiety, including generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and various phobia-related disorders. (NIMH)

Generalized Anxiety Disorder

People with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) display excessive anxiety or worry, most days for at least 6 months, about a number of things such as personal health, work, social interactions, and everyday routine life circumstances. The fear and anxiety can cause significant problems in areas of their life, such as social interactions, school, and work.

Generalized anxiety disorder symptoms include:

  • Feeling restless, wound-up, or on-edge
  • Being easily fatigued
  • Having difficulty concentrating; mind going blank
  • Being irritable
  • Having muscle tension
  • Difficulty controlling feelings of worry
  • Having sleep problems, such as difficulty falling or staying asleep, restlessness, or unsatisfying sleep

(NIMH)

Panic Disorder

People with panic disorder have recurrent unexpected panic attacks. Panic attacks are sudden periods of intense fear that come on quickly and reach their peak within minutes. Attacks can occur unexpectedly or can be brought on by a trigger, such as a feared object or situation.

During a panic attack, people may experience:

  • Heart palpitations, a pounding heartbeat, or an accelerated heartrate
  • Sweating
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Sensations of shortness of breath, smothering, or choking
  • Feelings of impending doom
  • Feelings of being out of control

(NIMH)

18% of US adults (18+) live with anxiety disorders. (NAMI)

In a given year, approximately 40million adults in the United States alone will be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders are the most prevalent mental health condition. Yet, because anxiety is associated with an everyday, typical emotion, many people do not realize that anxiety can also be a mental health disorder. In fact, a lot of people view anxiety disorder as “attention-seeking” when it is not.

The symptoms that one experiences with anxiety disorder can vary. Not everyone will experience the same symptoms. However, the symptoms may impact one’s body, mind, and behavior. Anxiety disorder can impact one’s overall mental, emotional, and physical health.

Without proper support, anxiety disorder may worsen overtime. Luckily, anxiety disorders are treatable! Common treatment options include psychotherapy (“talk therapy”), cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and / or medication. It is important to note that medication does not “cure” anxiety but can help to relieve symptoms. When facing an anxiety disorder, learning how to approach certain situations and cope with your emotions can be extremely beneficial. Remember, your emotional reactions can impact your physical reactions.

Anxiety disorders can lead to physical illness.

Did you know that your nervous system is closely linked to your immune system? In fact, your body releases chemicals and hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, when facing anxiety / stress. Your immediate response to the release is often rapid heart rate, increased breathing rate, palpitations, and chest pain. After the stress or feelings of anxiety subside, your body functions as normal. However, with an anxiety disorder, the feelings of anxiety and stress may not subside; therefore, your immune system may be affected. Overtime, as your immune system weakens, you become more susceptible to viral infections and illnesses.

In addition to impacting your central nervous system, the physical effects on your body, can also impact your cardiovascular, digestive, and respiratory systems. Anxiety can increase your risk of high blood pressure and heart disease. It can increase your risk of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or cause symptoms of nausea, stomachaches, and loss of appetite. Rapid, shallow breathing can also occur, which may worsen symptoms of asthma.

(Healthline)

Final Thoughts

Although anxiety disorder is commonly overlooked and invalidated, it is a real mental health condition. Anxiety can lead to problematic effects on your physical health if not addressed. Finding the root cause of your anxiety, creating a treatment plan with the help of a mental health care professional, and developing healthy coping mechanisms can play an essential part in managing your anxiety.

If you or someone you know may be experiencing an anxiety disorder, please reach out to your doctor or mental health care professional to learn which treatment options may be right for you.

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