What Causes Anxiety Disorders?
The exact cause of anxiety disorders is unknown; but anxiety disorders -- like other forms of mental illness -- are not the result of personal weakness, a character flaw, or poor upbringing. As scientists continue their research on mental illness, it is becoming clear that many of these disorders are caused by a combination of factors, including changes in the brain and environmental stress.
Like other brain illnesses, anxiety disorders may be caused by problems in the functioning of brain circuits that regulate fear and other emotions. Studies have shown that severe or long-lasting stress can change the way nerve cells within these circuits transmit information from one region of the brain to another. Other studies have shown that people with certain anxiety disorders have changes in certain brain structures that control memories linked with strong emotions. In addition, studies have shown that anxiety disorders run in families, which means that they can at least partly be inherited from one or both parents, like the risk for heart disease or cancer. Moreover, certain environmental factors -- such as a trauma or significant event -- may trigger an anxiety disorder in people who have an inherited susceptibility to developing the disorder.
How Common Are Anxiety Disorders?
Anxiety disorders affect about 19 million adult Americans. Most anxiety disorders begin in childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood. They occur slightly more often in women than in men, and occur with equal frequency in whites, African-Americans, and Hispanics.
How Are Anxiety Disorders Diagnosed?
If symptoms of an anxiety disorder are present, the doctor will begin an evaluation by asking you questions about your medical history and performing a physical exam. Although there are no lab tests to specifically diagnose anxiety disorders, the doctor may use various tests to look for physical illness as the cause of the symptoms.
If no physical illness is found, you may be referred to a psychiatrist, psychologist, or another mental health professional who is specially trained to diagnose and treat mental illnesses. Psychiatrists and psychologists use specially designed interview and assessment tools to evaluate a person for an anxiety disorder.
The doctor bases his or her diagnosis on the patient's report of the intensity and duration of symptoms -- including any problems with daily functioning caused by the symptoms -- and the doctor's observation of the patient's attitude and behavior. The doctor then determines if the patient's symptoms and degree of dysfunction indicate a specific anxiety disorder.
How Are Anxiety Disorders Treated?
Fortunately, much progress has been made in the last two decades in the treatment of people with mental illnesses, including anxiety disorders. Although the exact treatment approach depends on the type of disorder, one or a combination of the following therapies may be used for most anxiety disorders:
- Medication: Drugs used to reduce the symptoms of anxiety disorders include anti-depressants and anxiety-reducing drugs.
- Psychotherapy: Psychotherapy (a type of counseling) addresses the emotional response to mental illness. It is a process in which trained mental health professionals help people by talking through strategies for understanding and dealing with their disorder.
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy: This is a particular type of psychotherapy in which the person learns to recognize and change thought patterns and behaviors that lead to troublesome feelings.
- Dietary and lifestyle changes.
- Relaxation therapy.