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Mental Health Awareness Month: What Is Anxiety?

Anxiety is an intense feeling of dread, worry, and uneasiness about everyday situations. Sometimes anxiety can manifest in panic attacks, which are sudden feelings of intense fear or terror. May is Mental Health Awareness Month, a time to gain an understanding of mental health problems such as anxiety, erase the stigma associated with mental illness, and inspire others to share their stories to help others feel #NotAlone.

What Is Anxiety?

According to the American Psychiatric Association, anxiety is a normal reaction to stress that can be beneficial since it alerts us to dangers and helps us prepare and pay attention. Anxiety becomes problematic and labeled a disorder, however, when it causes abnormal feelings of nervousness or anxiousness that are out of proportion to the situation or are age inappropriate and hinder a person’s ability to function normally. Anxiety is associated with muscle tension and avoidance behavior.

Anxiety is the most common mental health disorder, affecting nearly 30 percent of adults. Women are more likely to experience anxiety disorders than men.

The percentage of anxiety disorders in any given year include:

  • Phobia to a specific stimulus, 7 percent–9 percent
  • Social anxiety disorder: 7 percent
  • Panic disorder: 2 percent–3 percent
  • Agoraphobia: 2 percent
  • Generalized anxiety disorder: 2 percent
  • Separation anxiety disorder: 1 percent–2 percent

Main Types of Anxiety Disorders

There are several types of disorders, as indicated in the list above. The most common are: 

  • Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD): People with GAD worry about ordinary issues (health, family, money, work), but their worries are excessive, out of control, out of proportion to the actual events, and persist daily for at least six months. Feelings of depression and physical side effects, such as a racing heart and upset stomach, often accompany GAD.
  • Panic disorder: People with panic disorder experience panic attacks, which are sudden, repeated periods of intense fear when danger is not present. Panic disorder attacks come on quickly and can last several minutes or longer. They manifest in shortness of breath, heart palpitations, chest pain, and feelings of impending doom.
  • Specific phobias: People with phobias have an intense fear of something actually posing little or no danger, such as spiders, elevators, flying, going to crowded places, or being in social situations.
  • Social anxiety disorder (social phobia): Social anxiety involves high levels of anxiety, fear, and avoidance of social situations. Associated feelings include embarrassment, self-consciousness, and concern about being judged or viewed negatively.
  • Agoraphobia: This form of anxiety occurs when people have a fear of and then avoid places or situations that might cause panic and feelings of being trapped, helpless, and embarrassed.
  • Separation anxiety disorder: In this disorder, children experience excessive anxiety when being separated from parents or others in parental roles.

Causes and Risks of Anxiety Disorders

The cause of anxiety is unknown, although genetics, brain biology and chemistry, stress, and the environment may be factors.

Risk factors for anxiety disorders vary but may include:

  • Certain personality traits, such as being shy or withdrawn around new people
  • Traumatic life events in early childhood or adulthood
  • Family history of anxiety disorder or mental disorders
  • Certain physical illnesses, such as thyroid problems or irregular heartbeat

Anxiety and the COVID-19 Pandemic

The pandemic has had a major impact on everyone’s mental health. The results of 65 studies worldwide have concluded that one in five health-care workers have experienced anxiety, depression, and/or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) since the pandemic began in early 2020. And according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), just during the latter half of June 2020 alone, nearly 41 percent of adults reported “struggling with mental health or substance abuse.”

The CDC recommends the following healthy ways to cope with stress:

  • Take breaks from watching, reading, and listening to news stories
  • Take care of your body by exercising regularly, getting plenty of sleep, avoiding excessive alcohol or other substances, continuing with routine preventative medical procedures, eating healthy meals, and meditating
  • Make time to unwind
  • Connect with others in a safe way
  • Stay in touch with community- or faith-based organizations

Symptoms of Anxiety

Depending on the disorder, anxiety disorders can have different symptoms, but all include the following:

  • Out-of-control anxious thoughts or beliefs that make you feel nervous, restless, or tense and that interfere with daily life. They are persistent and worsen over time.
  • Physical symptoms such as a pounding heartbeat, unexplained aches and pains, dizziness, shortness of breath, feeling tired or weak, trembling, sweating
  • Having trouble sleeping
  • Having the urge to avoid certain objects and situations that trigger anxiety
  • Having difficulty controlling worry
  • Experiencing gastrointestinal problems

When to Seek Help

See a doctor if:

  • You feel like worrying has overcome you and is interfering with work, relationships, or other aspects of your life
  • Your fear, worry, or anxiety is upsetting you and is too difficult to control.
  • You experience feelings of depression, turn to alcohol or drugs, or have other mental health concerns as well as anxiety.
  • You believe your anxiety is linked to a physical health issue.
  • You have suicidal thoughts or behaviors. If this occurs, seek help immediately by calling 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or by texting HOME to 741741

Herrick Library Resources

The following resources are available to reserve and borrow from the Herrick Library or in OverDrive, where indicated*:

  • The Anxiety & Phobia Workbook, by Edmund Bourne
  • *Anxiety: the Ultimate Teen Guide, by Kate Frommer Cik
  • *The Anxiety First Aid Kit: Quick Tools for Extreme, Uncertain Times, by Rick Hanson et al.
  • Are U OK?: A Guide to Caring for Your Mental Health, by Kati Morton
  • Feeling Great: The Revolutionary New Treatment for Depression and Anxiety, by David Burns
  • How Big Are Your Worries, Little Bear?: A Book to Help Children Manage and Overcome Anxiety, Anxious Thoughts, Stress, and Fearful Situations, by Jayneen Sanders (picture book)



Sources: American Psychiatric Association, What Are Anxiety Disorders?, https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/anxiety-disorders/what-are-anxiety-disorders; CDC, COVID-19, Coping with Stress, https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/managing-stress-anxiety.html; CDC, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, Mental Health, Substance Use, and Suicidal Ideation During the COVID-19 Pandemic—United States, June 24–30, 2020, https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6932a1.htm; Mayo Clinic, Anxiety Disorders, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/anxiety/symptoms-causes/syc-20350961; MedlinePlus, Anxiety, https://medlineplus.gov/anxiety.html; ScienceDaily, High Rates of Depression, Anxiety, PTSD Worldwide Among Health Workers During COVID-19, https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/03/210310150402.htm

Graphics: DCHS.gov, Unsplash (Joice Kelly; Engin Akyurt)

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