Around three million Canadians have an anxiety disorder. One in four will experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their lifetime.
Anxiety disorders are one of the most common types of mental health disorders in Canada. They have a major impact on the lives of those affected. It’s important that we understand what anxiety disorders are, and what they look like. Then we can learn techniques to support ourselves and others through anxiety.
Anxiety and anxiety disorders
Anxiety is a normal, temporary reaction to stress. On the other hand, anxiety disorders involve intense and prolonged reactions. They can have debilitating symptoms. Some examples are shortness of breath, heart palpitations, and irritability. These symptoms don’t match up with the reality of the situation or the risks it poses.
- Stressor. A stressor is something that causes an anxiety reaction. For example, writing an exam could be a stressor. So can preparing for an interview, or having an argument with a friend. Those with an anxiety disorder may not be able to manage these situations. They might experience continued uneasiness and tension. This impacts their ability to move beyond the event. In turn, it disrupts and influences future behaviour.
- Intensity and length. Anxiety disorders often produce intense and lengthy emotional responses. These responses are often very intense relative to the stressor. Anxiety is fleeting, whereas anxiety disorders are ongoing and hard to overcome. Anxiety disorders can also impact your physical health. Physical symptoms may include headaches, dizziness, and in some instances, high blood pressure.
- Impairment. Anxiety disorders may impact your day-to-day functioning. Avoidance is a common tactic used to prevent anxiety episodes. People might want to avoid environments where stressors may occur. This can cause isolation, as people withdraw from daily life.
Causes of anxiety disorders
Researchers are learning that anxiety disorders are like allergies: They can run in families, and have a biological basis. Anxiety disorders may develop from a complex set of risk factors. These include genetics, personality, and life experience.
Here are some theories on how anxiety disorders can develop:
- Medical. In some cases, medical issues may be a contributing factor (e.g. diabetes, heart disease, trauma). Most anxiety disorders develop in childhood and adolescence. Yet, a medical cause is more likely to be a contributing factor later in life. This is because people are more likely to develop health problems as they age.
- Genetics. While science has yet to identify an exact gene, it’s believed that genetics play a role. Genetics may increase the risk of developing an anxiety disorder. Scientists believe that chromosomal irregularities connect genetics and anxiety disorders. (Chromosomal irregularities are missing, extra, or irregular portions of the chromosomal DNA.) Dr. Amy Przeworski is a researcher at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. She says that “individuals inherit a predisposition to being an anxious person.” She also said that “about 30 to 40 percent of the variability is related to genetic factors.”
- Psychological. There are several psychological theories on the causes of anxiety disorders. However, each theory only explains one part of the diagnosis. Anxiety disorders can be caused by interpersonal conflict or dysfunctional thought patterns. An example of a dysfunctional thought pattern is overestimating a situation’s danger level. They can also be conditioned responses learned over time. These are only some of the psychological causes. We should also consider the overlap with other mental health conditions like depression. These can make someone more likely to develop an anxiety disorder.
There are many factors that could cause someone to develop an anxiety disorder. With more research, we may be able to come up with exercises or measures to prevent them. These measures could limit the prevalence of anxiety disorders.
Types of anxiety disorders
There are six major categories of anxiety disorders. Each one has different symptom profiles.
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). One out of every 20 people suffers from GAD in Canada. People with GAD may experience chronic, excessive, and uncontrollable worry. Some other symptoms of GAD are tension, fatigue, and difficulty concentrating or falling asleep.
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Compulsions are repetitive, sometimes stereotypical behaviours. (In this case, “stereotypical” means the behaviour does not serve a specific function.) Some examples are handwashing, skin-picking, or rocking movements. They can also be mental acts that the person does to prevent or reduce their anxiety. Even if they try to resist it, people may feel an urge to perform the action.
- Panic Disorder. Panic disorders are often marked by repeated fears. These fears can last for several minutes or longer. They often occur unexpectedly in the absence of a threat. In these situations, they tend to peak rapidly and cause symptoms of panic. This is often accompanied by a sense of imminent danger. 
- Phobic Disorder. One out of every 10 people in Canada has a phobia. The fear is often considered excessive and disproportionate. This is because it often does not match the situation’s actual danger level. When someone with a phobia is exposed to the thing they fear, it triggers an anxiety response. These responses can sometimes grow into full-blown panic attacks.
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). One out of every 10 individuals in Canada will experience PTSD in their lifetime. PTSD develops after someone experiences or witnesses a traumatic event. This can cause intense fear, helplessness, or horror. This could include responses to powerful one-time incidents or chronic/repetitive experiences.
- Social Anxiety Disorder. About eight percent of Canadians will experience social anxiety disorder in their lifetime. People with social anxiety disorder get nervous and uncomfortable in social settings. This is regardless of whether the situation is formal or informal. This can often lead individuals to become isolated. This leads them to minimize their contact and engagement with others.
How to manage symptoms of an anxiety disorder
It is possible to manage the symptoms of anxiety disorders. Use the techniques below when you feel anxious.
- Connect with others. Loneliness and isolation set the stage for anxiety. By connecting with people who are supportive, caring, and sympathetic, you can feel less vulnerable. Vulnerability can contribute to anxiety manifesting. Make it a point to regularly be part of a community. The community can be composed of friends or family, self-help groups, or support groups. You could even share your experience with a trusted loved one or a counsellor.
- Practise relaxation techniques. Practising relaxation every day can help manage anxiety symptoms. It can also increase relaxation. This benefits your emotional well-being over time. There are many things you can do to relieve feelings of anxiousness. They include meditation and deep breathing exercises. Another technique is progressive muscle relaxation. This involves controlling your body’s muscular tension.
- Exercise regularly. Exercise is a natural stress and anxiety reliever. When exercising, your body produces endorphins. These are chemicals that combat fatigue and stress. Rhythmic activities are especially effective. These activities require moving both your arms and legs. This includes activities like walking, swimming, or dancing.
- Get enough sleep. Sleep is one of the most important ways to manage anxiety. Those who struggle with anxiety often have trouble getting to sleep. If you struggle with sleep, try meditating before bed to help clear your mind. It is also important to create the right environment for sleeping. For example, it’s best not to eat an hour before bed. In addition, keeping a consistent sleep schedule increases your quality of sleep.
- Be smart about caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol.
- If you struggle with anxiety, you may want to try drinking less caffeine, or cutting it out completely. Caffeine increases cortisol levels, which can lead to anxiousness.
- Many people think nicotine is a relaxant, but it is actually a powerful stimulant. It produces epinephrine (adrenaline) when inhaled. This causes a spike in glucose levels that changes your bodily functions. It increases your blood pressure, heart rate, and respiration. All these changes increase the likelihood of anxiety.
- Since alcohol serves as both a stimulant and a depressant, it is a key factor if you struggle with anxiety. When you drink alcohol, your blood alcohol content (BAC) rises. This causes your mood and emotions to change. However, as your BAC decreases, anxiety can develop. This also comes with depression and fatigue.
- Train your brain to stay calm. Worrying is a mental habit you can learn to manage. Set aside dedicated time in your day to focus on difficult events or tasks. Write them down to assess the scenario. Reflect on how to approach or manage the situation. You can build resilience by challenging anxious thoughts and learning to accept uncertainty. This can reduce anxiety and fear.
Regardless of diagnosis, we can all benefit from a better understanding of anxiety and reduction techniques. If you feel you or a loved one may have symptoms of an anxiety disorder, speak to a healthcare professional. They can help you get proper diagnosis and treatment.
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