Anxiety happens as a normal part of life. It can even be useful when it alerts you to danger. But for some people, anxiety persistently interferes with daily activities such as work, school or sleep. This type of anxiety can disrupt relationships and enjoyment of life, and over time it can lead to health concerns and other problems.
In some cases, anxiety is a mental health condition that requires treatment. Generalized anxiety disorder, for example, is characterized by persistent worry about major or minor concerns. Other anxiety disorders — such as panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) — have more-specific triggers and symptoms. Sometimes, anxiety results from a medical condition that needs treatment.
Whatever form of anxiety you have, lifestyle changes, counseling or medications — or a combination of these approaches — can help.
Common anxiety signs and symptoms include:
Several types of anxiety disorders exist:
When to see a doctor
Your worries may not go away on their own, and they may actually get worse over time if you don't seek help. See your doctor or a mental health provider before your anxiety gets worse. It may be easier to treat if you address it early.
As with many mental health conditions, the exact cause of anxiety disorders isn't fully understood. Life experiences such as traumatic events appear to trigger anxiety disorders in people who are already prone to becoming anxious. Inherited traits also are a factor.
Physical problems that can be linked to anxiety include:
It's more likely that your anxiety may be due to an underlying medical condition if:
These factors may increase your risk of developing an anxiety disorder:
Having an anxiety disorder does more than make you worry. It can also lead to, or worsen, other mental and physical health conditions, such as:
Preparing for your appointment
You may start by seeing your family doctor or a general practitioner to find out if your anxiety could be related to your physical health. Your doctor can check for signs of an underlying illness that may need treatment.
However, you may need to see a specialist if you have severe anxiety. A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who specializes in diagnosing and treating mental health conditions. A psychologist and certain other mental health providers can diagnose anxiety and provide counseling (psychotherapy).
Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment, and what to expect from your doctor or mental health provider.
What you can do
For anxiety, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
Don't hesitate to ask questions during your appointment.
What to expect from your doctor
Tests and diagnosis
To help diagnose an anxiety disorder and rule out other conditions, your doctor or mental health provider may have you fill out a psychological questionnaire. Your doctor will probably do a physical exam to look for signs that your anxiety might be linked to a medical condition.
To be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, you must meet criteria spelled out in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). This manual is published by the American Psychiatric Association and is used by mental health providers to diagnose mental conditions and by insurance companies to reimburse for treatment. Symptoms — and diagnostic criteria — differ for each type of anxiety disorder.
Anxiety disorders often occur along with other mental health problems — such as depression or substance abuse — which can make diagnosis and treatment more challenging.
Treatments and drugs
When anxiety is severe, disrupts your day-to-day life, causes panic attacks or doesn't get better over time, you may have a disorder that needs to be diagnosed and treated.
The two main treatments for anxiety disorders are behavior therapy (psychotherapy) and medications. You may benefit most from a combination of the two. It may take some trial and error to discover exactly what treatments work best for you.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is one of the most effective forms of psychotherapy for anxiety disorders. Generally a short-term treatment, cognitive behavioral therapy focuses on teaching you specific skills to gradually return to the activities you have avoided because of anxiety. Through this process, your symptoms improve as you build upon your initial success.
Lifestyle and home remedies
While most people with anxiety disorders need psychotherapy or medications to get anxiety under control, lifestyle changes also can make a difference. Here's what you can do:
Several herbal remedies have been studied as a treatment for anxiety, such as kava, valerian and passionflower, but more research is needed to understand the risks and benefits. Here's what researchers know — and don't know:
Before taking herbal remedies or supplements, talk to your doctor to make sure they're safe for you and won't interact with any medications you take.
Coping and support
To cope with anxiety disorder, here's what you can do:
There's no way to predict for certain what will cause someone to develop an anxiety disorder in the first place, but you can take steps to reduce the impact of symptoms if you're anxious:
Last Updated: 2012-06-30
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