What are you so worried about?

stress ropeThe world we live in is increasingly high-paced and demanding of time and attention. Cell phones and social media keep us constantly stimulated. This kind of environment can lead to stress. Stress is a normal reaction to high-pressure situations and can be a healthy mechanism to help us increase performance for a short period of time.

While stress is a response to a specific situation, anxiety is a feeling of uneasiness that may not trace back to an identifiable source. Anxiety is a perfectly normal feeling to have once in a while, especially during or just before or after periods of prolonged stress. This feeling can be beneficial in some cases by creating a heightened awareness and preparing us for what is to come.

Anxiety becomes abnormal when symptoms are present on a regular basis or without any apparent immediate cause. Anxiety disorders can last for up to six months and require treatment. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 40 million or about 18% of adults suffer from an anxiety disorder.  Anxiety disorders include Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), panic disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and social phobias. Anxiety disorders can have a big impact on quality of life. A person with an anxiety disorder may feel that they should be able to handle these symptoms on their own; that they should be able to manage their own stress. As the disorder persists, this can lead to feelings of inadequacy and depression. An individual with anxiety disorder may have difficulty engaging in certain situations or even with leaving the house.

Here is a list of symptoms of anxiety disorder from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America:

  • a feeling of imminent danger or doom
  • the need to escape
  • heart palpitations
  • sweating
  • trembling
  • shortness of breath or a smothering feeling
  • a feeling of choking
  • chest pain or discomfort
  • nausea or abdominal discomfort
  • dizziness or lightheadedness
  • a sense of things being unreal, depersonalization
  • a fear of losing control or “going crazy”
  • a fear of dying
  • tingling sensation
  • chills or heat flush

Anxiety symptoms can often manifest in the form of “attacks” that come on suddenly for no apparent reason. Panic attacks include extreme symptoms and last for 20 minutes or less. Anxiety attacks can last longer, but the symptoms are usually less intense than panic attack symptoms. Because these symptoms mimic other health conditions, people experiencing panic or anxiety symptoms will often present at the emergency room with chest pain concerned that they are having a heart attack.  Over a longer period of time, doctors may run tests for heart disease or thyroid disease to no avail, which may only lead to increased anxiety symptoms.

Psychotherapy, medication, breathing techniques and regular exercise can be effective for treating anxiety disorders. Psychotherapy (working with a psychologist, therapist or social worker) can be very effective as there is no medication currently available to cure anxiety disorders. Many times, antidepressants or benzodiazepines can reduce symptoms, but should be used along with psychotherapy. Psychotherapy has gotten a bad reputation in our society and is often stigmatized. However, most insurance companies now cover psychotherapy for mental health conditions. Talking to a therapist does not mean an individual is weak or crazy. When dealing with a stress-related disorder, this type of therapy makes a lot of sense. A therapist may use a variety of techniques to help an individual manage stress and cope with anxiety-related symptoms. These techniques can include standard talk therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, mindful meditation, and breathing techniques.  Anxiety can fool your physiology into thinking you are actually in imminent danger. This elicits the classic “fight-or-flight” response resulting in shallow, fast-paced breathing, increased heart rate and a number of the symptoms listed above. Focused breathing techniques can help reset these physiological responses and remind your body that you are not, in fact, in danger. Depending on the intensity of the anxiety symptoms, breathing techniques may only provide short term relief. Practicing regular breathing techniques, meditation, and getting regular exercise can make a big impact on anxiety symptoms. If you experience regular symptoms of anxiety, see your doctor and discuss what may be the best treatment approach for you.

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Karen Reece

Karen served as a Senior Research Scientist in Nucleic Acid Technologies at Promega before switching careers. She has a BS in Biochemistry and MS and PhD in Physiology, all from University of Wisconsin-Madison. Karen was born and raised in Madison, WI.

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