By Tony Sowers, LMSW
Tony is a clinician in the Article 16 Clinic. He wrote the following article for the ReHab Center’s health and wellness monthly newsletter.
Paying bills. Our health. The economy. Common, everyday worry and anxiety can take many forms and everyone has things they are concerned about from time to time. Unfortunately for some people anxiety and worry can become an everyday, sometimes constant, struggle. The number of cases of anxiety disorders, which include among them generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and certain phobias, have steadily increased in the United States. In fact, they are close to unseating depression as the number one mental health issue in our country.
Why is this so? In order to understand how rates of anxiety disorders have increased it is helpful to first learn about the complex and varied nature of the disorders themselves. For example, generalized anxiety disorder causes sufferers to worry not about a specific thing, but instead to worry excessively about many things. Everyday stressors and concerns become magnified and can lead to a vulnerable state in which daily functioning is impaired. Panic Disorder, on the other hand, involves acute episodes of severe anxiety which many later describe as feeling like dying, having a heart attack, or “going crazy.” These episodes are commonly known as panic attacks. In between such episodes the individual lives in constant fear of the next attack occurring. Phobias are very specific fears involving an intense, incapacitating fear of certain objects, places or situations in which the fear is greatly exaggerated and out of proportion to the actual danger or threat posed. A person may dislike spiders, but a person with a phobia of spiders is intensely afraid at even seeing images of spiders, may go to great lengths to avoid places where spiders might be, and in general has altered their everyday behavior based on their fear. Many individuals have agoraphobia, more commonly known as social phobia, which is a fear of social situations and being with larger groups of people. Such persons may isolate themselves by foregoing such routine social outings such as grocery shopping, riding the bus or visiting family and friends.
Fortunately, there exist well-researched and proven treatments for those suffering from anxiety disorders. Typical treatments recommended include talk therapy, or counseling, and in some cases the use of an anti-anxiety medication. Common talk therapy approaches often involve helping patients examine their worrisome thoughts from a more objective perspective. Next, they are challenged to modify these ‘irrational’ thoughts by replacing them with ‘rational’ ones that are based on what is occurring in real life, and not on exaggerated, distorted thoughts and feelings. Phobias are often treated in a similar way but many include an approach known as systematic desensitization, in which the person is gradually exposed to their specific fear during increasing periods of time. The individual intensely afraid of snakes may begin by first talking about snakes with their therapist and then looking at pictures of them. Eventually they may be directed to visit a pet store or zoo and observe snakes in their cages, or even touch or hold a snake. During all of these sessions the therapist is helping the person monitor their level of anxiety and work to control it.
As mentioned, medications are sometimes prescribed to assist persons with managing more moderate to severe symptoms of anxiety. Such medications are typically the domain of the psychiatrist, although primary care physicians are now prescribing these as well. Anti-anxiety medications are often used in conjunction with talk therapy, as research shows outcomes are often improved when both treatments are used together.
Whatever form of anxiety one may have, the most important thing is getting proper treatment. Unfortunately, there continues to be a stigma related to mental health disorders and this can prevent those who need help from getting it. If you happen to know of someone currently experiencing persistent worry, panic attacks, or specific fears severe enough that they are becoming a problem with daily living, don’t hesitate to provide support and help them access treatment. In today’s modern world life is tough enough…but it doesn’t have to be made even tougher with an anxiety disorder.