Anxiety disorders

Mild to moderate anxiety can be helpful. If anxiety starts disrupting your life, you may need help.

When you're driving in heavy traffic or struggling to meet a deadline, a little anxiety can be a good thing. It keeps you alert and focused as you meet day-to-day challenges. People also tend to perform certain tasks best at moderate levels of anxiety.

But sometimes anxiety goes into overdrive. Anxiety disorders take many forms.

People with generalized anxiety disorder, for example, are overwhelmed by recurring worries.

Panic disorder involves sudden, intense and unprovoked feelings of terror or dread. With phobias, intense fear focuses on a particular object or situation, such as snakes or flying.

In obsessive-compulsive disorder, individuals use routines or rituals in an effort to prevent or eliminate persistent, uncontrollable feelings or thoughts.

And individuals who have experienced a traumatic event, such as a natural disaster, crime or accident, may develop post-traumatic stress disorder. Even months or years after the event, reminders of the trauma can adversely affect their thoughts, feelings and behavior.

These disorders can cause distress and disrupt normal routines.

People with panic disorder, for example, may be so worried about having another attack that they start avoiding situations they fear may trigger one. That kind of behavior can make it hard to do their job or take care of their family.

Anxiety disorders can also produce physical symptoms, including trembling, dizziness, shortness of breath and a racing heartbeat. In fact, people sometimes mistake a panic attack for a heart attack.

Anxiety disorders can also harm your health. Phobias about needles, blood or dentists, for example, may prevent people from getting the medical or dental care they need. Phobias can also be a problem for individuals with diabetes or multiple sclerosis who can't bring themselves to perform self-injections.

Anxiety disorders can even put people at risk for injury. In some cases, phobias are so extreme that blood pressure and heart rate plummet and the individual faints.

How a psychologist can help

Fortunately, there is effective treatment for anxiety disorders:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy. With this approach, patients begin by learning how their thoughts contribute to their anxiety symptoms. They can then work on changing those thought patterns to reduce their occurrence and intensity. They can also focus on reducing or stopping the undesired behaviors associated with them. A psychologist might teach a patient deep breathing and other relaxation techniques to counter the hyperventilation and agitation associated with some anxiety disorders. Another approach is to help the patient gradually confront and learn to tolerate fearful situations in a safe, controlled environment. Some psychologists actually use virtual reality--a flying simulator, for example--to provide these "densensitization" experiences.
  • Medication. Medication can also be useful for treating some anxiety disorders. In these cases, physicians and psychologists work together to manage a patient's care.