Anxiety Disorder: So Much More Than Just Being Anxious
Anxiety disorder sufferers know all too well the devastation anxiety disorder can cause. Many anxiety disorder sufferers suffer in silence with those around them often having little idea about the depth of their suffering. These brave souls often go about their daily lives enduring what most people could scarcely fathom. Sure, once in a while an anxiety disorder sufferer may complain about her anxiety or say that she is having a bad day. But this barely scratches the surface of the devastation anxiety disorder can cause and what an anxiety disorder sufferer has to endure.
It’s understandable that those who haven’t experienced anxiety disorder often think anxiety disorder sufferers are weak and should just be able to “snap out of it.” Or think that anxiety disorder sufferers are making everything up to get attention. Or think that if anxiety disorder sufferers would just grow up, they’d get over it.
And there are others who believe anxiety disorder is just a fad or some passing trend. There are others who believe anxiety disorder sufferers are merely weak-minded or weak-willed, and if they just stopped worrying, they’d get over it. There are still others who think that anxiety disorder sufferers are just making everything up, that it’s all in their head, or that they make things sound much worse than they actually are.
While understandable, these types of comments are far from the truth. The truth is, if you haven’t personally experienced anxiety disorder, you most likely have little idea about the depth to which a person can be affected.
Anxiety disorder can be ruinous. It can not only affect every area of a person’s life but can also destroy a person’s life. A life lived in constant fear with a full onslaught of physical and emotional symptoms is not something I’d wish on anyone. Yet, many people – approximately five percent of the population – have to endure this level of hardship every day. That is their 24/7 reality. Not because they are weak or have something wrong with their brains. But because they have learned to persevere in spite of their affliction. Anxiety disorder sufferers are some of the bravest people I’ve met. To live in a constant state of fear along with its multitude of physical, mental, and emotional symptoms demonstrate their fortitude and strength in the face of unrelenting struggle. So rather than looking down on them, we hope the following will provide insight into their struggle.
We hope the following information will give you a more realistic idea of what anxiety disorder is and how profoundly it can impact those who are experiencing it. We present this information, not to gain your sympathy, but to gain your understanding in the hopes that you will be more supportive, not only in his or her struggle but also as he or she goes about overcoming this disabling condition.
Anxiety disorder affects approximately 20 percent of the general population, with one-quarter of those sufferers experiencing very high degrees of anxiety disorder. These numbers are actually much higher as many cases of anxiety disorder go unreported. Also, keep in mind that less than one-third of anxiety disorder sufferers receive treatment. The anxiety disorder problem is sizeable and growing daily.
Anxiety disorder is NOT caused by a biological problem with the brain, a chemical imbalance in the brain, or a genetic problem. These notions were theories posited over the years until more became known about the true cause of anxiety disorder. Unfortunately, some of these notions prevail today in spite of the advances in research and treatment. For more information about why these notions are false, click on the respective links. We aren’t going to address these notions here.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety can be defined as:
- A state of uneasiness and apprehension, as about future uncertainties.
- A state of apprehension, uncertainty, and fear resulting from the anticipation of a real or imagined event, situation, or circumstance that we think might be threatening.
Anxiety is NOT a disease or medical condition. Anxiety is a state of apprehension that results from anticipating something we think might be dangerous and harmful. Everyone experiences anxiety from time to time. This is a normal part of our human condition when we believe we could be in danger.
In this regard, anxiety is a behavior:
- A way in which one conducts oneself,
- A way in which a person responds to a particular situation or circumstance,
- The way in which a person thinks and acts.
Therefore, anxiety is not caused by a biological, chemical, or genetic problem. Anxiety results from a style of behavior.
What is anxiety disorder?
When anxiety interferes with a normal lifestyle, it is said to be a disorder – a disruption of normal physical and mental functions. Consequently, anxiety disorder is a term used to describe when anxiety interferes with a normal lifestyle.
The term anxiety disorder should NOT be confused with a medical diagnosis. Anxiety disorder is NOT a medical term, but a layman’s term used to describe someone who has issues with anxiety.
It’s also important to recognize that anxiety disorder doesn’t result from a medical condition but can cause medical-sounding symptoms. We talk more about this in a moment.
To be clear, anxiety occurs when a person behaves in an apprehensive manner. Anxiety disorder occurs when overly apprehensive behavior interferes with a normal lifestyle. Behaving apprehensively can affect how the body functions.
What causes anxiety disorder?
Simply put, we learn our behaviors from the environments we grow up in. This is why anxiety disorder often travels in families. Not because there is a biological, chemical, or genetic predisposition, but because behaviors are learned and passed on from families to families.
For example, anxiety disorder is prevalent in families where one or both parents were worriers. This worrisome behavior is picked up by the developing child. As this child has her own family, her children pick up her anxious behavior, and so on.
There are other environmental factors as well, such as helicopter parenting, which often produces anxious behavior in children. Child abuse is another common factor. So is over-critical parenting, over-indulgent parenting, and having one of both parents having issues with recreational drugs, to name a few.
At last count, we (anxietycentre.com) have identified over 100 environmental factors that influence the adoption of overly apprehensive behavior. Again, rather than there being a biological, chemical, or genetic predisposition that causes anxiety disorder, anxiety disorder is caused by learned behavior, which has been influenced by the environments we grow up in.
Anxiety disorder occurs when a person copes with adversity, uncertainty, and risk in an overly apprehensive manner. This is a learned response that becomes habituated over time.
Recovery Support members can learn more about the many environmental factors that cause anxiety disorder in Chapters 5, 6, and 7 in the Recovery Support area.
How does apprehensive behavior affect the body?
The body’s survival mechanism is designed to give the body an “emergency boost” when we believe we could be in danger. This boost is often referred to as the “stress response,” or more commonly known as the “fight or flight response.”
For example, the moment we believe we could be in danger, the body automatically secretes stress hormones into the bloodstream where they travel to targeted locations in the body to bring about specific emergency readiness changes – to give the body a boost in energy and awareness when danger is detected. Some of these changes include:
- Energizes the body
- Heightens our awareness of and reaction to danger
- Elevates heart rate
- Quickens respiration
- Stimulates the nervous system
- Heightens senses
- Tightens muscles
- Changes stomach and digestive function
- Changes brain functioning
- Constricts blood vessels
- Changes blood flow
And so much more.
For a more detailed explanation of the many changes the stress response brings about, Recovery Support members can read Chapter 3 in the Recovery Support area.
Suffice to say; the body undergoes a number of physiological changes all geared to give the body a “boost” when in danger. These changes affect the body on many levels, from respiration, digestion, and muscle tension to the neurological. Since these changes are intended to be temporary, they subside once the danger has passed, which allows the body to return to normal functioning as the body uses up or expels the unused stress hormones.
For more information, visit our stress response page.
But what happens when danger is regularly perceived, as is the case for many anxiety disorder sufferers? The body remains on “emergency response readiness.” This means the stress response changes, which are supposed to be temporary, now become the body’s normal.
Instead of the stress response changes subsiding, they persist. This can cause the body to enter a state that we call, stress-response hyperstimulation. As apprehensive behavior increases, so does the body’s level of stress, since stress responses stress the body. As the body’s stress elevates, this elevated stress can cause a wide range of persistent symptoms.
Anxiety symptoms are symptoms of stress. We call them anxiety symptoms because overly apprehensive behavior is the main source of the stress that causes the body to become overly stressed and symptomatic.
Even though anxiety symptoms are symptoms of stress, they can profoundly impact a person’s life. Some anxiety symptoms include, intermittent to persistent:
- Confused thinking
- Stomach and digestive distress
- Racing heart
- Skipped heartbeats
- Shortness of breath
- Difficulty thinking
- Emotional upset
- Vision problems
- Sleep problems
- Concentration problems
- Co-ordination problems
And a multitude of other symptoms.
The more anxious the behavior, the more stressed the body becomes. It’s the degree and frequency of anxious behavior that determines the degree of anxiety disorder severity.
Degrees of anxiety disorder
Anxiety disorder can be experienced at many degrees of severity, including:
Mild anxiety disorder: Thoughts and symptoms occurring infrequently and to a mild degree.
This degree of anxiety disorder is generally mildly invasive, with few episodes of difficulty. Those who experience this degree of anxiety disorder usually live fairly normal lives with little disruption due to anxiety and its symptoms. This degree of severity can be characterized as having only a mild impact on a normal lifestyle. Those who experience this degree of anxiety disorder experience rare episodes of anxiety, which are often related to a few situations and circumstances.
This degree of anxiety disorder is often accompanied by sporadic physical symptoms.
Moderate anxiety disorder: Thoughts and symptoms occurring more frequently and to a moderate degree.
This degree of anxiety disorder is generally moderately invasive with frequent episodes of difficulty. Those who experience this degree of anxiety disorder have some difficulty due to anxiety and its symptoms. This degree of severity can be characterized as having noticeable impact on a normal lifestyle. Those who experience this degree of anxiety disorder experience frequent episodes of anxiety, with some of these episodes causing significant disruption to a normal lifestyle.
This degree of anxiety disorder is often accompanied by a number of intermittent physical, mental, and emotional symptoms, and generally causes intermittent impairment to a normal lifestyle.
High degree anxiety disorder: Thoughts and symptoms occurring regularly.
This degree of anxiety disorder is often regularly invasive with frequent to persistent episodes of difficulty. Those who experience this degree of anxiety disorder have reoccurring difficulty due to anxiety and its symptoms. This degree of severity can be characterized as having a significant impact on a normal lifestyle. Those who experience this degree of anxiety disorder experience frequent to persistent episodes of anxiety, with some of these episodes causing significant disruption to a normal lifestyle.
This degree of anxiety disorder is often accompanied by frequent to persistent physical, mental, and emotional symptoms, and generally causes significant impairment to a normal lifestyle.
Severe degree anxiety disorder: Thoughts and symptoms occurring persistently and to a very high degree.
This degree of anxiety disorder is persistently invasive with ongoing episodes of difficulty. Those who experience this degree of anxiety disorder have persistent difficulty due to anxiety and its symptoms. This degree of severity can be characterized as having a major and crippling impact on a normal lifestyle. Those who experience this degree of anxiety disorder experience persistent episodes of anxiety, with many episodes causing significant disruption to a normal lifestyle.
This degree of anxiety disorder is accompanied by severe physical, mental, and emotional symptoms, which causes major impairment to a normal lifestyle.
The impact of anxiety disorder
It’s one thing to experience strong apprehensive behavior, but quite another when the body is exhibiting strong symptoms. Because the physical effects of anxiety can impact the entire body, including how the brain functions, when anxiety disorder reaches the moderate and above degrees of severity, the sufferer can experience a barrage of persistent and unrelenting physical, mental, and emotional symptoms.
Not only can overly apprehensive behavior and a full slate of physical, psychological, and emotional symptoms cause turmoil in a person’s life, the condition itself can exacerbate the entire mix making everything much worse. Moreover, once the body becomes hyperstimulated and symptomatic, it can take a very long time – and much, much longer than most people think – to recover just from the physical effects of hyperstimulation. This doesn’t even take into account the amount of work and effort required to address the behavioral aspects of anxiety disorder.
Many anxiety disorder sufferers experience intense fear AND strong physical, mental, and emotional symptoms 24/7 for days, months, and even years. And most anxiety disorder sufferers would give anything to be free of anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorder isn’t something people choose to remain in. They remain stuck because they most often don’t know how to overcome it or haven’t received the right help.
Imagine your daily life filled with relentless fear, disquiet, and a multitude of strong physical, mental, and emotional symptoms. This describes a typical day in the life of an anxiety disorder sufferer, with fear feeding the symptoms and the symptoms feeding the fear.
To make matters even worse, many anxiety disorder sufferers become afraid of anxiety, how it feels, the many symptoms that can occur, and the thought of never being able to overcome it. In this case, we have fear feeding fear, with symptoms also feeding fear, and with the threat of never overcoming it feeding the entire mix. Anxiety disorder can be a horrible place to find oneself and seemingly having no way out.
Due to its impact, people who experience anxiety disorder are three to five times more likely to go to the doctor than those who do not suffer from anxiety disorder. Unfortunately, the medical community isn’t much help. Since most doctors aren’t trained in anxiety disorder, their primary treatment is medication, which produces very poor results. This leaves many to struggle on their own. In fact, because of the poor results from the medical community, and from psychiatrists who also primarily prescribe medication, just over one-third of suffers get treatment, and only ten percent of that number get effective treatment. Much more needs to be done to help sufferers get effective treatment.
Recovery from anxiety disorder
The good news is that anxiety disorder sufferers CAN overcome anxiety disorder with the right information, help, and support. When a person identifies the root causes of his anxiety disorder and successfully addresses them, anxiety disorder disappears in time along with its symptoms.
Overcoming moderate and above degrees of anxiety disorder most often requires the help of an experienced anxiety disorder therapist. Unless an anxiety disorder sufferer knows what to address, and then how to address his issues, he can struggle indefinitely. Getting knowledgeable help is vital. When the core of the anxiety problem is successfully identified and addressed, the problem and its symptoms disappear.
Click the link for more information about anxiety disorder recovery.
Recovering from anxiety disorder takes a lot of work, time, and patience. Anxiety disorder is NOT something a person can “snap out of” or quickly overcome. There is a chain of events that needs to be followed in order to experience success. This chain of events takes time to achieve. Nevertheless, success is assured when a person does the right work and for long enough. All of us at anxietycentre.com have done this work and have succeeded. We believe anyone can, as well.
When a person does the right work, success is inevitable. This is not to suggest doing this work is easy or quick. But that success is attainable with the right information, help, and support, and through effort and perseverance.
See our page “Two Levels of Anxiety Disorder Recovery” for more information about how to overcome a struggle with anxiety disorder. You can also see our page “Can Everyone Recover From Anxiety Disorder?” for more information about the realistic expectations of recovery.
Those who suffer with anxiety disorder understand that anxiety disorder is so much more than just being anxious. We hope that the above information gave you a better idea of the challenges and realities associated with anxiety disorder.
For more information on how to help someone with anxiety disorder, see our page “15 Ways To Help Someone With Anxiety Disorder.”
The combination of good self-help information and working with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist is the most effective way to address anxiety disorder and its many symptoms. Until the core causes of anxiety are addressed - the underlying factors that motivate apprehensive behavior - a struggle with anxiety disorder can return again and again. Identifying and successfully addressing anxiety's underlying factors is the best way to overcome problematic anxiety.
For more information about our Anxiety Counseling option; our Available Anxiety Therapists; to Book An Appointment with one of our anxiety therapists; common Anxiety Signs and Symptoms; common Anxiety Attack Symptoms; the symptoms of panic attack disorder; anxiety Recovery Support area; information about Anxiety; and our Anxiety 101 section; or click on the appropriate link or graphic below:
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Authors: Jim Folk, Marilyn Folk, BScN. Last updated February 25, 2019.