What you need to understand about anxiety

As many as 44 million American adults suffer from an anxiety disorder, yet only one-third of them receive treatment, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.

In a broad sense, anxiety is an emotional dysregulation that causes difficulty when dealing with day-to-day activities, according to Dr. Andrena Kursh, an inpatient and consult liaison psychiatrist at Mosaic Life Care. She compares the reactions to a sort of fight-or-flight response.

“You can get activation of different systems in your body to where you’re feeling anxious, your heart’s racing, thoughts are going fast,” Kursh says. “There’s an emotional regulation center in the brain called the amygdala that controls this fight-or-flight response. Studies have shown that this area is enlarged and is overactive in people who have anxiety disorders.”

The amygdala is connected to different areas in your brain that are responsible for perception of threat and regulation of emotions, and when that area is activated, it’s preparing you for that fight or flight.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders mentions several different types of anxiety, such as generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety, panic disorder and more specialized anxiety disorders like obsessive compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. As a result, the symptoms aren’t always uniform.

“There is always a normal level of anxiety that we should all have, and that normal level of anxiety prepares us for big decisions, dangerous situations and stressful events,” Kursh says.

It’s when that level rises to a point where the anxiety is more persistent and interferes with day-to-day activities, relationships and work that it could be classified as a disorder.

“The reason that there are so many anxiety disorders is because they all kind of have their own specific symptoms,” Kursh says.

For example, generalized anxiety disorder often is characterized by excessive worry. Meanwhile, a phobia regarding spiders, heights or other notable triggers can cause an anxiety linked to those specific things. In this way, some anxieties are very much linked to memories or past trauma.

“Your brain basically stores past experiences, and experiences that were unpleasant can later start to activate that amygdala and make you feel more anxious,” Kursh says.

Genetics also can be a factor, so children can have experience with anxiety as well. Females are more likely to have anxiety, and certain triggers or experiences such as a divorce or death in the family can prompt similar feelings, triggers that are very similar to causes of depression.

“Anxiety and depression are very interconnected,” Kursh explains. “When we’re more depressed, we’re more prone to be affected by stressors in the form of anxiety.”

Depression affects about 16.1 million adults every year, and half of them are diagnosed with an anxiety disorder as well.

Luckily, these high numbers have drawn awareness to the disorders, prompting several treatment options, including self-help books and phone apps that help to manage the symptoms. Various medications can be prescribed as well, taking effect after only a few weeks.

There also are different forms of therapy designed for anxiety, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, which examines the connections between your thinking and your behavior and how you react to stressors.

“There are also some things that you can just do in your lifestyle that can help manage your anxiety better, such as reducing your caffeine intake. That is a stimulating substance that can be more provoking of anxiety,” Kursh says. “And then there’s just living a healthy lifestyle. Getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, having a good diet, not doing drugs or smoking cigarettes can all be helpful as well.”

So if treatment options are indeed available, why do only one-third of the 44 million American adults who suffer from an anxiety disorder receive it? Kursh believes there are many reasons, including a stigma associated with psychiatric illnesses in general, which, with the advent of social media groups, might be on the decline.

On the other hand, some might not be aware of how bad things actually are.

“I think some people don’t recognize that their anxiety is actually to the level that it is considered a disorder, so it’s something that they might try to manage on their own and don’t seek help,” Kursh says. “Sometimes people don’t know that there’s help available.”

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