Anxiety is your mind and body’s natural response to events that are threatening. It’s important to keep in mind that experiencing anxiety is normal for everyone. However, when anxiety becomes severe, lasts for several weeks, and includes symptoms that keep you from doing things you usually would, it may be worth discussing with your health care professional. Anxiety symptoms are real—they are not just in your head. They can be treated, and they are nothing to be ashamed of.
Common symptoms of anxiety include
- thoughts that don’t go away;
- avoidance of people, places, or things;
- aches and pains;
- rapid heartbeat;
- shortness of breath;
- dry mouth;
- shaking; and
- difficulty concentrating.
Fight or Flight
As long as humans have been on earth, when they have been confronted with threatening situations, their bodies have had automatic responses to prepare them to fight the threat or run away from it.
When the hypothalamus is stimulated, it directs nerve cells to fire and starts a chemical release increasing adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol in the blood, causing reactions such as
- increased alertness;
- increased heart rate;
- increased blood flowing in the muscles of the arms and legs, possibly causing shaking or jitters;
- less blood flowing in the digestive system so more blood is available to the arms and legs, possibly causing dry mouth or abdominal discomfort;
- dilated pupils (for better vision); and
- constricted blood vessels in the skin and open sweat glands, leading to paleness or clamminess.
In people with depression, bipolar disorder, and/or anxiety disorders, the fight or flight response may be stimulated more often and for longer periods of time than in people without these conditions. This means that more things are perceived as threatening to these individuals experiencing heightened anxiety. An out-of-balance fight or flight response can cause a person to
- have a physical reaction to everyday people, places, or things;
- believe danger is around every corner;
- be convinced something terrible will happen if certain things aren’t done a certain way;
- feel constantly keyed-up and on-edge; and
- avoid people, places, or things in an effort to avoid the anxiety response.
All of these things can interfere with people’s lives so much that they aren’t able to do things they would like to do and their relationships are strained or lost.
What Causes Anxiety?
With mood disorders, sometimes anxiety is a symptom. Other times it is a separate diagnosis. It also may have physical, environmental or lifestyle-related causes. Your health care providers will be able to figure out how to treat your anxiety and mood symptoms when you let them know all of your symptoms and concerns. If your symptoms don’t go away or get worse, keep asking your providers to help you find other ways to treat them.
Anxiety has some things in common with depression, such as low levels of the brain chemical serotonin. Because of this, some treatments for depression can help anxiety symptoms too, including antidepressant medications and psychotherapy. Some bipolar disorder treatments, including antipsychotic medications, can also help minimize anxiety symptoms.
Other physical conditions can cause or worsen anxiety symptoms. For some people, anxiety may be a result of medication side effects. If your anxiety symptoms start suddenly within the first couple of weeks after you start taking the medication, they may be side effects. Keep track of them and let your health care providers know.
Tell your provider about any other conditions you have and medications you take. Talk about how your medications affect you and work with your providers to find ways to change your treatment and reduce your anxiety. You don’t have to live with side effects. Your doctor should be able to work with you to find ways to reduce or eliminate them.
When a person spends time in stressful situations, anxiety is likely to be high. High-tension home or work relationships, or any situation in which a person’s fight or flight response is triggered, can make anxiety symptoms worse. Sometimes situations can be changed, other times a person can be helped by therapy and other treatments to respond to situations with less anxiety.
Many people find the increased excitement or adrenaline rush that comes with a high-risk lifestyle enjoyable. A person may also engage in high-risk activities as a symptom of mania or a response to the hopelessness of depression. A high-risk lifestyle can be a source of anxiety. Alcohol and drugs, though people often use them to cope with anxiety, can also cause anxiety by setting off chemical changes in the brain.
Anxiety and Depression
Anxiety has some things in common with depression, such as low levels of the brain chemical serotonin. Because of this, some treatments for depression can help alleviate anxiety symptoms also, including antidepressant medications and psychotherapy. Some bipolar disorder treatments, including antipsychotic medications, can also help with anxiety symptoms. Your health care providers can work with you to determine how to treat your anxiety and mood symptoms when you let them know all of your symptoms and concerns. If your symptoms don’t go away or get worse, keep asking your providers to help you find other ways to treat them.
Anxiety Treatment Options
As with any treatment or medical procedure, different people will have different responses. DBSA does not endorse or recommend the use of any specific treatment or medication. For advice about specific treatments or medications, consult your healthcare provider.