Anxiety is the most common mental health problem in the United States, but many people aren’t aware of the basic facts about anxiety. Nearly a fifth of adults have an anxiety disorder, so even if you don’t have one personally, you probably know someone who does. These facts can help you understand anxiety disorders, and give you some tips on how to manage your own anxiety.
- It’s normal to worry or feel anxious.
Life can be stressful sometimes, and in those times of stress, it’s normal to feel worried or anxious. In fact, these feelings can often be helpful! For instance, if you’re worried about your financial situation, this could prompt you to ask for a raise at work. This is an example of how anxiety can benefit you. The difference between helpful and unhelpful anxiety is one of the most important anxiety facts to understand. How do you know when normal worry crosses the line into being a disorder? It depends on how much time you spend worrying about things. If you spend more than an hour a day worrying or feeling anxious, or if your worrying starts to interfere with your life, then it might be time to see a doctor.
- There’s more than one kind of anxiety disorder.
There are five different categories of anxiety disorder:
- Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD): People with GAD are constantly worried about one or more things, such as their health or finances, even if there’s no cause for concern.
- Panic disorder: This disorder is characterized by panic attacks, which are short but intense periods of severe distress.
- Social anxiety disorder (SAD): People with social anxiety disorder are extremely self-conscious in social situations and will often self-isolate to try and avoid them.
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD): This disorder causes recurring intrusive thoughts and anxiety. People with OCD often use repetitive, ritualistic behavior to try and calm their anxiety.
- Specific phobias: A phobia is a fear of a specific thing or situation. Common phobias include spiders, dogs, flying and storms.
- Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), 40 million American adults are affected by anxiety. That’s around 18% of the population. Of those 40 million:
- 6.8 million have GAD
- 6 million have a panic disorder
- 15 million have SAD
- 2.2 million have OCD
- 19 million have a specific phobia
- Women are more likely than men to have anxiety disorders.
After puberty and until around 50 years old, women are twice as likely as men to have an anxiety disorder. This difference is at least partly due to differences in brain chemistry and hormone profiles. Some possible reasons include:
- The brain activates the fight-or-flight response more readily in women than in men. And it stays activated for longer.
- Women and men process serotonin differently. This neurotransmitter affects how people respond to stress and anxiety.
- Women are more sensitive to corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF), a hormone involved in the stress response.
- Anxiety disorders are often accompanied by co-occurring disorders.
People with GAD often have other mental health problems. For instance, GAD frequently occurs alongside substance abuse and depression. People with eating disorders and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) often have anxiety disorders as well. Around half of people with depression also have an anxiety disorder. And people with anxiety disorders are six times more likely to be hospitalized for psychiatric reasons than people who don’t have an anxiety disorder.
- Anxiety may be partly hereditary.
Many people who have an anxiety disorder have a family history of this ailment. There is evidence to suggest that there is a hereditary component to anxiety. For instance, it may be that biological factors such as a sensitive fight-or-flight response are hereditary. Another possibility is that it’s not biological factors that are inherited, but behavioral patterns. When anxiety runs in families, it may be that anxiety-promoting patterns of behavior are unconsciously learned by a child with an anxious parent.
- Anxiety can affect your physical health.
Anxiety can cause a wide range of physical symptoms. These include nausea, muscle tension, headaches and chest pain. There’s also evidence that people with anxiety disorders have a higher risk of developing certain chronic illnesses. Most doctors acknowledge that there exists a strong mind-body connection and that your physical health and emotional state influence each other. So, it does make sense that anxiety could have this effect. Chronic anxiety is linked to multiple health problems, including heart disease, respiratory ailments and gastrointestinal problems. Stress and anxiety are also known to have a suppressive effect on the immune system.
- Exercise can help manage anxiety.
Just as exercise can help with depression, it can also be a good way of relieving anxiety. Exercise helps reduce stress and improves cognitive function. It also stimulates the production of endorphins, which improve your mood and help you sleep. Amazingly, it takes just five minutes of aerobic exercise to start feeling the benefits. If you exercise for five or more minutes a day, you may find that your anxiety becomes easier to manage.
- What you eat can influence your anxiety.
If you have an anxiety disorder, modifying what you eat may help you control it. If your diet is high in sugar and refined or processed foods, it could be contributing to your anxiety. Studies show that a balanced diet of whole grains, fruits and vegetables can help. It’s not a quick fix or certain cure, but it can help balance your mood and improve anxiety symptoms. For instance:
- Skipping meals or eating sugary foods can wreak havoc on your blood sugar. This can make you feel jittery and worsen your anxiety.
- Staying properly hydrated and avoiding caffeine can help reduce anxious feelings.
- Magnesium, zinc and omega-3 fatty acids may help reduce anxiety. Adding foods such as salmon, beef, eggs, spinach, nuts and whole grains to your diet can help.
- Probiotic foods such as pickles, kefir and sauerkraut may also help. These foods help promote “good” bacteria in the gut, which is where most of your body’s serotonin receptors are located.
- Having an anxiety disorder can increase your addiction risk.
People with anxiety disorders have a higher risk of substance abuse and addiction. This is because many people turn to alcohol or drugs as a way of calming their anxious feelings. Few people do this with the intention of relying on alcohol or drugs. For most people, it starts with one drink, or a sedative, just to calm the nerves. But while it does work initially, over time this strategy creates many more problems than it solves. It’s much healthier to seek professional treatment rather than self-medicate.
- Avoidance makes anxiety worse in the long run.
People with anxiety disorders often try to manage their symptoms by avoiding anxiety triggers. This might seem like the best thing to do, but in fact, avoidance is counterproductive. Why? Because even though people avoid their anxiety triggers, they can’t stop themselves from thinking about them. Over time, the combination of anxiety and avoidance starts to chip away at your self-confidence, making you believe you’ll never overcome the problem. In the long run, it’s much healthier, and more effective, to address the problem head-on by seeking treatment.
- Anxiety can be treated.
Probably the most encouraging fact is that anxiety disorders are highly treatable. There are several effective treatment options for anxiety. These include:
- Therapy (e.g. cognitive behavioral therapy)
- Coping strategies (e.g. mindfulness and breathing exercises)
- Alternative therapies (e.g. yoga, meditation and acupuncture)
The best kind of treatment depends on the type and severity of the anxiety disorder involved. For some people, several sessions of CBT are enough to get them on the right track. Others may need to spend longer on therapy and combine that treatment with medication.
- Most people don’t receive treatment for anxiety.
Although there are effective treatments for anxiety disorders, only about 36.9% receive treatment. There may be more than one reason for this. For instance, some people may not be aware of how big a problem their anxiety truly is. When you live with an anxiety disorder for a long time it can start to seem normal, even though it’s not. Some people may realize their anxiety is a problem, but not know that it’s treatable. And for some, it may be a matter of not wanting to admit that they have a problem. Today, there is less of a stigma associated with mental health problems, but for some, having an anxiety disorder may be a source of shame.
Anxiety Treatment Can Improve Your Quality of Life
When you have an anxiety disorder, your life can seem to shrink. Having anxiety often prevents people from doing things they used to enjoy, or trying new things they’re interested in. If anxiety is preventing you from living life the way you want to, remember that anxiety is treatable. And it’s never too late to seek treatment. There’s no such thing as a worry-free life, but you can learn to manage your anxiety and keep it under control.