Everybody knows what it’s like to feel anxious – the butterflies in your stomach before a first date, the tension you feel when your boss is angry, the way your heart pounds if you’re in danger. Anxiety rouses you to action. It gears you up to face a threatening situation. It makes you study harder for that exam, and keeps you on your toes when you’re making a speech. In general, it helps you cope.
But if you have an anxiety disorder, this normally helpful emotion can do just the opposite – it can keep you from coping and can disrupt your daily life. Anxiety disorders aren’t just a case of “nerves.” They are illnesses, often related to the biological makeup and life experiences of the individual, and they frequently run in families. There are several types of anxiety disorders, each with its own distinct features.
An anxiety disorder may make you feel anxious most of the time, without any apparent reason. Or the anxious feelings may be so uncomfortable that to avoid them you may stop some everyday activities. Or you may have occasional bouts of anxiety so intense they terrify and immobilize you.
Anxiety disorders are the most common of all the mental disorders. At the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), the Federal agency that conducts and supports research related to mental disorders, mental health, and the brain, scientists are learning more and more about the nature of anxiety disorders, their causes, and how to alleviate them. NIMH also conducts educational outreach activities about anxiety disorders and other mental illnesses.
Many people misunderstand these disorders and think individuals should be able to overcome the symptoms by sheer willpower. Wishing the symptoms away does not work – but there are treatments that can help. That’s why NIMH has produced this pamphlet – to help you understand these conditions, describe their treatments, and explain the role of research in conquering anxiety and other mental disorders.
This brochure gives brief explanations of generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder (which is sometimes accompanied by agoraphobia), specific phobias, social phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. More detailed information on some of these anxiety disorders is available through NIMH or other sources. (See the listings at the end of this pamphlet.)
” I always thought I was just a worrier. I’d feel keyed up and unable to relax. At times it would come and go, and at times it would be constant. It could go on for days. I’d worry about what I was going to fix for a dinner party, or what would be a great present for somebody. I just couldn’t let something go. ”
” I’d have terrible sleeping problems. There were times I’d wake up wired in the morning or in the middle of the night. I had trouble concentrating, even reading the newspaper or a novel. Sometimes I’d feel a little lightheaded. My heart would race or pound. And that would make me worry more. ”
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is much more than the normal anxiety people experience day to day. It’s chronic and exaggerated worry and tension, even though nothing seems to provoke it. Having this disorder means always anticipating disaster, often worrying excessively about health, money, family, or work. Sometimes, though, the source of the worry is hard to pinpoint. Simply the thought of getting through the day provokes anxiety.
People with GAD can’t seem to shake their concerns, even though they usually realize that their anxiety is more intense than the situation warrants. People with GAD also seem unable to relax. They often have trouble falling or staying asleep. Their worries are accompanied by physical symptoms, especially trembling, twitching, muscle tension, headaches, irritability, sweating, or hot flashes. They may feel lightheaded or out of breath. They may feel nauseated or have to go to the bathroom frequently. Or they might feel as though they have a lump in the throat.