Is It an Anxiety Disorder? Or Simply Stress?

Doctors and patients sit and talk

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health problem in the United States, affecting 18 percent of adults. They’re made up of a range of illnesses – such as phobias, panic disorder and social anxiety disorder – all of which involve excessive fear, says psychiatrist Matig Mavissakalian, MD.

“Anxiety is an emotion, a fearful expectation that something is going wrong,” Dr. Mavissakalian says. “It’s an emotion that refers to the future – that something bad or dangerous is going to happen.”

Anxiety Equals Poor Work Performance

In the workplace, anxiety disorders double the risk of poor work performance and result in an estimated five and a half work days in lost productivity each month.

Additionally, anxiety disorders are the sixth-leading cause of disability globally and affects more women and people ages 15 to 34, the Center for Workplace Mental Health reports.

For most people, the fear and apprehension associated with being anxious come and go quickly. But when those feelings interfere with daily activities, become difficult to control, are out of proportion to the actual danger and last a long time, you might have an anxiety disorder.

Symptoms of Anxiety Disorder

Symptoms of an anxiety disorder include:

  • Feeling nervous, restless or tense
  • A sense of danger, panic or doom
  • Fast heart rate
  • Breathing rapidly
  • Sweating
  • Trembling
  • Trouble concentrating or thinking about anything other than the worry
  • Not getting a restful sleep

Panic attacks differ from anxiety, Dr. Mavissakalian says. The physical reactions are more intense in panic attacks. You may experience increased heart rate, dizziness, sweating, trembling and shortness of breath, which often is accompanied by the fear of having a heart attack or stroke or of losing your mind.

“The perception of immediate danger with a panic attack causes fear that something is going to happen right now,” he says. “The anxiety spirals up and up until the person becomes panicky.”

Treatment Can Help

With any type of anxiety disorder, it’s important to see your doctor to rule out whether the cause is another medical condition that should be treated.

If your condition is stress-related, there are wellness programs that can help you manage stress.

Psychotherapies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, can effectively help treat anxiety disorders and panic attacks, Dr. Mavissakalian says.

“They teach ways to cope with the anxiety better, reality-test the ’dangerousness’ of the feared situation and foster a sense of security to hitherto feared and avoided environments or thoughts," he says. “Usually within a few months we see very substantial changes and improvements.”

Finally, medications offer a high success rate for treating anxiety disorders and panic attacks. Some widely used ones include anxiolytic medications – for instance, Ativan and others – and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), such as Prozac.

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