Why it’s important to understand this common disorder
by Lindsay Ulrich
Though everyone experiences some form of it, the feeling of anxiety can go beyond those of butterflies on a first date for many people. Anxiety becomes a problem when symptoms are persistent, severe, and interfere with a person’s daily functioning. Often this means an inability to work, study, socialize, or manage daily tasks. Treatment for anxiety often starts late, because people either don’t understand their symptoms or because they’re too ashamed or embarrassed to seek treatment.
Affecting 10-25% of the population, anxiety disorders are the most common mental health issue, yet many people suffer for a decade or more before seeking treatment. Negatively impacting people’s thoughts, behaviours, and overall health, anxiety is on the rise in Canada and the United States. Studies at Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve University have found that today’s college and university students experience higher levels of anxiety than all other previous generations since the 1930s. Adding to this problem is the stigma of the disorder because it prevents people from seeking help for a very treatable condition and discourages them from improving their lives.
The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) has some useful symptoms that may indicate an anxiety disorder (from CAMH website):
- Cognitive: anxious thoughts (e.g., “I’m losing control”), anxious predictions (e.g., “I’m going to fumble my words and humiliate myself”) and anxious beliefs (e.g., “Only weak people get anxious”).
- Physical: excessive physical reactions relative to the context (e.g., heart racing and feeling short of breath in response to being at the mall). The physical symptoms of anxiety may be mistaken for symptoms of a physical illness, such as a heart attack.
- Behavioural: avoidance of feared situations (e.g., driving), avoidance of activities that elicit sensations similar to those experienced when anxious (e.g., exercise), subtle avoidances (behaviours that aim to distract the person, e.g., talking more during periods of anxiety) and safety behaviours (habits to minimize anxiety and feel “safer,” e.g., always having a cell phone on hand to call for help).
Anxiety Canada identifies seven main anxiety disorders: Social Anxiety Disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Panic Disorder with or without Agoraphobia, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Specific Phobia, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and Separation Anxiety (in children and youth).
Treatments for these disorders are specific to each type, and all are highly effective. The main obstacle for overcoming anxiety is often stigma; people are afraid of being thought of as weak, or incompetent, so they delay seeking treatment. This is unfortunate since treatment options are very effective. They include cognitive-behaviour therapy, educating yourself about anxiety, relaxation techniques, counseling, meditation, self-esteem building, exercise, exposure therapy, and/or medication. Often these techniques can be self-directed once you learn them, and there are a number of anxiety related self-help books on the market.