Anxiety and panic disorders come in many different forms, and vary in intensity from person to person. Some, such as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have identifiable origins. More often, the causes for conditions such as social anxiety disorder are elusive at best.
Anxiety and panic disorders may be associated with genetics, changes in neurological chemistry, or disruptive life events. Physical and emotional stress can also lead to anxiety disorders. Note that some medications cause side effects that appear as anxiety disorders, and that even excessive caffeine consumption may cause symptoms consistent with anxiety disorder symptoms. Other physical causes might include dietary deficiencies, low blood sugar, thyroid problems and drug withdrawal.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder
Generalized anxiety disorder is defined as a period of uncontrolled worry, nervousness and anxiety for six months or more. The anxiety may initially focus on a specific worry (relationships, career, or finances, for example), or may present as a vague anxiety about almost anything. Accompanying irritability is very common. Physical symptoms often develop, including muscle pain, insomnia, trembling, and gastro-intestinal problems.
Panic disorder is diagnosed when panic attacks occur on a frequent basis. During a panic attack, the panic disorder sufferer experiences intense anxiety, fear or panic. Physical symptoms include a pounding heart rate, chest pain, sweating, tingling sensations, and feelings of imminent death, disaster or loss of control. Twenty-five percent of people who suffer from panic attacks develop Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) or agoraphobia in an attempt to control the attacks.
Panic attacks come in three different forms: unexpected, situational and situationally predisposed. An unexpected panic attack is just that; it can strike at any time, without warning. A situational panic attack always occurs in a specific location or circumstance (driving at night, for instance). The particular location or circumstance always cues a panic attack. Situationally predisposed panic attacks also occur in response to a situation or location, but do not occur every time the cue is present and the reaction may be delayed for some time.
Phobias are fear responses to situations or things. Almost anything can become a phobia: fear of flying, or of dogs, heights or enclosed spaces are common examples. The fear reaction generated by the phobia is out of proportion to any dangers actually posed by the situation, and the person affected by the phobia is aware of this intellectually. This awareness does not prevent phobias from occurring, however, and many people go to great lengths to avoid facing phobias.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is one of the few anxiety disorders where a specific trigger or cause for the disorder can be found. PTSD may be caused by a physical assault, witnessing death, the death of a loved one or traumatic events such as war or natural disasters.
People living with post traumatic stress disorder often relive the event that triggered the disorder, either through nightmares or flashbacks. They may go to great lengths to avoid places or circumstances that remind them of the traumatic event. Many sufferers develop an emotional “numbness” as the mind attempts to protect itself from the PTSD.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
OCD, or obsessive compulsive disorder, affects two to three percent of the American population. People with obsessive compulsive disorder have persistent, recurring thoughts caused by fears or anxiety. The repetitious thoughts often lead to ritualistic behavior designed to “protect” them from their anxiety. Examples include excessive hand washing to prevent illness, checking and rechecking locked doors before retiring to bed, or even insisting on using only certain brands of pencils.
Separation anxiety is a normal part of childhood development. Between the ages of eight to fourteen months, children become aware of their need for safe, comfortable surroundings: specifically, the closeness of their parents. Children with separation anxiety become clingy, cry and display anxiety when parents aren’t present. By two years, most children have overcome separation anxiety, although the anxiety may re-emerge under stressful circumstances, such as hospital stays or divorce.
When the behaviors associated with separation anxiety become excessive and persistent, a child under 18 years of age may be diagnosed with separation anxiety disorder. Children with this condition worry about being separated from their parents or guardians, or from being taken from their homes by being kidnapped or getting lost. They fear sleepovers at friends’ homes and may have trouble falling asleep in their own beds. They may also fear that their loved ones will die unexpectedly and abandon them.
Social Anxiety Disorder
Social anxiety disorder is a social phobia. People with social anxiety disorder are irrationally concerned about being judged or ridiculed in social situations, and feel extreme embarrassment and anxiety when in public. Heart palpitations, blushing, and sweating may occur.