Since it is Mental Heath Awareness Month all month long I wanted to write a mini series about some common mental illnesses to help continue to share and discuss ways we can break the stigma of mental illness.
I really like the resources on a few websites which I find helpful to share with others as well. The National Alliance on Mental Illness has great resources on Anxiety , which is the source I am using today for this post.
Anxiety disorders are the most common form of mental illness found in the United States with an estimated 19% of adults and 7% of children having some form of an anxiety disorder according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). This means it is likely that you know someone that suffers from an anxiety disorder or may even have experienced one at some point in your life.
The DSM-5 spells out fear and anxiety well stating: Fear is the emotional response to real or perceived imminent threat and anxiety is the anticipation of future threat. Fear initiates our fight or flight response and anxiety is associated with initiating more of our muscle tension, and vigilance that causes us to avoid things. Therefore, when I am driving too fast, I may fear crashing my vehicle and slow it down to be more cautious this is a normal response, but if I am fearful and nervous about driving on the highway at the speed limit I might avoid driving long distances.
So what is an anxiety disorder?
Anxiety disorders are a grouping of conditions that have unique symptoms but all anxiety disorders do share one thing in common their trademark complaint is having: persistent, excessive fear or worry in situations that are not threatening. Anxiety has emotional and physical symptoms within our body. The common emotional symptoms are: feelings of apprehension, dread, feeling tense or keyed up, restlessness, irritability, anticipating the worst case scenarios. Anxiety can manifest itself and give physical symptoms as well such as racing heart, shortness of breath, headaches, fatigue, insomnia, sweating, tremors, upset stomach, and diarrhea.
What are some common types of anxiety disorders?
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder – this disorder produces excessive anxiety and worry that occurs more days than not for a period of at least 6 months about various activities. This is the broader anxiety disorder where a person is worried about multiple things and is often tense and irritable due to being anxious all the time.
- Social Anxiety Disorder – this is anxiety related to social interactions, causing a person to avoid them usually the underlying anxious thoughts include the fear of being embarrassed. People suffering from this may avoid social gatherings or participating in discussions and when forced to may experience panic attacks.
- Panic Disorder – this is the condition of having recurrent unexplained panic attacks. The key to understanding this is knowing what a panic attack is. A panic attack by definition in the DSM-5 is: an abrupt surge of intense fear or intense discomfort that reaches a peak within minutes and during this time at least 4 or more symptoms occur; heart palpitations, sweating, trembling, shortness of breath, choking sensation, chest pain, nausea, dizziness, chills, hot flashes, numbness or tingling, feeling detached from your body, fear of dying or fear of losing control. Often people have a panic attack at some point and do not understand what is going on they fear they are having a heart attack, if you have a panic attack it is important to note the symptoms and report them to your primary care physician.
- Phobias – this is a specific fear related to a circumstance or object or situation. The fear, anxiety and avoiding behavior is caused by the situation one is trying to avoid, and the anxiety is heightened more than the actual risk of the situation or object. Phobias range in severity and type some common are related to fear of certain animals, environments, blood, injections, injuries, situations etc.
How can I help?
This is where I get personal. I think the common human gut reaction when we see someone fearful or anxious and think it is excessive is to tell them there is nothing to worry about. In the moment for that anxious person, it really is not usually helpful. I find a better approach is to listen to the anxious thoughts and just be a sounding board for the person in the moment.
I suffer from anxiety surrounding my children’s safety to a heightened degree, especially right after they are born. I stay awake for the first 24 hours after giving birth just watching my new baby sleep because I have an intense fear they will stop breathing. I do not sleep well in the first few weeks constantly waking to check they are breathing. If my son wants to go for a walk with me I envision him being hit by a car and have him constantly by my side, despite the fact that he is pretty intelligent and can handle walking on the sidewalk. It is exhausting, having anxious thoughts all day long and being in constant fear.
I know how to work through my anxious irrational thoughts thanks to cognitive behavior therapy, and understanding how my anxiety manifests, but at times I do still get irrational. Having someone to talk to helps me, someone who can just listen and not judge is crucial at times. Listening and simply just saying to someone ‘wow that must be difficult to be worried about all that at once’ can often help the person begin to diffuse some of those anxious thoughts. Being able to talk and share is the first step to being able to discern what is an irrational fear and what is a healthy dose of fear.
If you or someone you love needs support for anxiety a good place to start is check in with your primary care physician and get a counselor recommendation.