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What is anxiety?

Anxiety is the mind and body’s response to dangerous, stressful, or unfamiliar situations. Some may describe anxiety as a feeling of fear or unease – and as unpleasant as it can be, anxiety is something we will all experience at some stage.

Various feelings, thoughts and bodily sensations, including muscle tension, concern or unease, worried thoughts, and physical symptoms such as a racing heart or trembling, can characterise anxiety.

Anxiety is a normal part of living, and most of us will experience that feeling of anxious dread at some point and for many different reasons. For example, you may feel anxious when starting a new job, moving house, or dealing with a problematic relationship or health issue. 

During challenging times, it is normal to feel anxious, and often the anxiety can be beneficial, raising your alertness and improving your performance levels.

However, when anxiety becomes overwhelming or lasts too long, it can start to affect a person’s daily functioning, limiting their potential for happiness, joy and fulfilment. 

When this happens, people often require professional treatment to help them understand their anxiety, manage their symptoms and improve their quality of life.

Speaking to a professional about your anxiety concerns

Fortunately, various treatment options are available for those experiencing anxiety, including Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), and other treatments, which will be explored later. 

If you or someone you know suffers from anxiety symptoms, you should consult a mental health professional who can provide further advice and support. 

You do not need to suffer in silence; anxiety is a treatable condition, provided you seek proper help and support from a licensed professional.

To learn about our anxiety treatment program, contact our treatment centre in Ontario for further information.

The body’s stress response

When we feel threatened or under intense stress or pressure, our body’s natural stress response kicks in by going into the fight-flight-freeze response. This is an innate defence mechanism that helps us manage or get through traumatic or stressful situations. 

Its purpose is to protect us, helping us to think on our feet during periods of crisis or emergency. This reaction is a natural and usually healthy response necessary for survival.

However, when the fight-flight-freeze response becomes chronic and uncontrollable, it can interfere with daily functioning and cause various complications for those affected, disrupting a person’s ability to perform at school, work, and socially.

When such complications arise, an individual may be experiencing an anxiety disorder. 

Nowadays, anxiety disorders tend to revolve around work, family, finances, health and other situations that regularly demand our attention but do not necessarily warrant the fight-flight-freeze reaction.

In addition, it is common for people with an anxiety disorder to be suffering from another mental health condition as well (called a co-occurring disorder), which can include depression, bipolar disorder and substance addiction.

What are the risk factors for anxiety disorders?

Studies show that a combination of risk factors is at the root of anxiety disorders; these include psychological, biological and environmental stressors, such as:

  • Genetics Those with a family history of anxiety are at risk of developing the condition themselves. For instance, you may develop anxiety if a close relative suffers from the disorder too.
  • Medical Chronic health conditions such as heart disease, thyroid imbalance, diabetes and asthma may induce or worsen anxiety. Anxiety may also be triggered by a chemical imbalance in the body, for instance, when someone takes prescription medications or abuses substances like drugs or alcohol.
  • Life experiences Difficult or traumatic life events such as physical, sexual or emotional abuse, bullying or losing a loved one can increase your risk of developing an anxiety disorder.
  • Substance abuse Alcohol or drug use, including substance withdrawal, may trigger or worsen an anxiety disorder.
  • Environmental factors It is common to experience anxiety in times of stress, such as moving house, going through a crisis at work or having persistent relationship problems. In most cases, the anxiety alleviates or disappears once the situation has been resolved. 

    However, studies show that specific brain changes can occur in people who experience severe or prolonged periods of stress, which may contribute to someone developing an anxiety disorder.

Although it is not always possible to identify the source of your anxiety or have the capacity to change your circumstances right away, you can become aware of your symptoms and seek professional guidance and support to help you manage your condition.

Let’s explore some of the common signs and symptoms of anxiety.

What are the common signs and symptoms of anxiety disorders?

Many of us will experience anxiety, worry and fear at various stages in our life.

A specific event or situation typically triggers these symptoms, but they are often short-lived and disappear once the event or problem is resolved.

However, those prone to anxiety disorder may experience chronic symptoms that occur more frequently, last longer and are not necessarily connected to a stressful situation or event.

This can cause much distress for anxiety sufferers as these symptoms can adversely affect their capacity to function, reducing their quality of life and ability to complete necessary tasks at work and home.

Anxiety symptoms may vary depending on the person, the type of anxiety disorder and its severity. 

However, the following signs and symptoms are common in all kinds of anxiety disorders, affecting individuals on a psychological, physical, emotional and behavioural level.

Psychological symptoms of anxiety

Some psychological symptoms of anxiety include the following:

  • Catastrophising
  • Depressive thoughts
  • Difficulty concentrating or focusing on a specific task or project
  • Loss of confidence or self-esteem
  • Memory problems
  • Obsessive and uncontrollable overthinking and racing thoughts
  • Misjudging the level of threat or danger in a specific event or situation
  • A lack of confidence in your ability to cope if something terrible happens
  • Fear of being judged. For example, you may worry that your anxiety will be obvious to others and, as a result, you may experience guilt or shame.

Physical symptoms of anxiety 

Some physical symptoms of anxiety include:

  • Dry mouth
  • Exhaustion and a lack of energy
  • Fast, heavy breathing or shortness of breath
  • Light-headedness, dizziness or fainting
  • Hair loss
  • Muscle tension, including headache, backache, or other bodily aches and pains
  • Racing or irregular heartbeat
  • Stomach ache, nausea and diarrhoea
  • Sweating or hot and cold flushes
  • Feeling shaky or trembly
  • Pins and needles in various body regions
  • Sleep problems, including insomnia or sleeping too much

The physical symptoms of anxiety are often misdiagnosed with certain medical conditions, such as heart disease, especially when symptoms persist over an extended period. 

Therefore, it’s important to speak to your doctor or local GP if you are worried or confused about your symptoms.

Emotional symptoms of anxiety

Some emotional symptoms of anxiety include:

  • Anticipating the worst possible scenario or outcome in any given situation
  • Constantly experiencing apprehension or dread
  • Distress
  • Severe irritability
  • Emotional or physical overwhelm
  • Intense feelings of panic 
  • Tension, nervousness and an inability to relax
  • Worrying about the past or future or thinking something terrible will happen
  • Being unable to concentrate or make decisions 

While the emotional aspects of anxiety often cause the least disruption in our daily lives, many people experience them as the most distressing symptoms.

Behavioural symptoms of anxiety 

When attempting to manage the negative mental, physical and emotional aspects of anxiety, individuals may develop maladaptive behaviours to help them cope, such as:

  • Avoidance behaviours – such as avoiding situations, places or people that we fear may cause us additional stress or may trigger our anxiety.
  • Safety behaviours – can include becoming overly attached to a person or object, such as a mobile phone, in an attempt to feel more secure and reduce anxiety.
  • Reassurance-seeking behaviours – include seeking reassurance from friends, family and medical professionals about your fears or concerns. For example, if you suffer from health anxiety, you may constantly seek advice or reassurance about your health from family members or the medical community, which can harm relationships.
  • Risky or self-destructive behaviours, such as drinking alcohol excessively or engaging in other forms of substance abuse, to numb painful feelings or relieve unpleasant symptoms.

Ultimately, these coping strategies do not alleviate your anxiety but may prolong and aggravate it.

What are the different types of anxiety disorders?

The most common types of anxiety disorder include:

Phobia-related disorders

A phobia is a debilitating, extreme, irrational fear triggered by a specific object, activity or situation. 

Sometimes these fears or phobias make a lot of sense, such as a fear of snakes or certain spiders. However, more often than not, the intensity of fear doesn’t match the situation or event. 

If you have a specific phobia, you may spend much time avoiding situations that trigger your fear. You may also avoid social interactions or daily activities. For instance, if you have an intense phobia of bees or wasps, you may avoid going into the garden or visiting parks during warmer seasons.

We may know that our fear is excessive or irrational but feel powerless to control or contain our responses or reactions. 

Some of the most common phobias that people experience include the following:

  • Animals, such as spiders, snakes, rodents and dogs
  • Phobias related to the body, such as blood, being sick or injections
  • Exposure to specific environments, such as heights, water or being in places where you’re more likely to be exposed to germs
  • Sexual-related phobias, including sexual acts, fear of nudity or performance anxiety
  • Situational phobias, such as going to the dentist, flying or escalators

Panic disorder

Panic disorder manifests as acute physical symptoms accompanied by intense fear. 

A panic attack can occur without warning or any obvious trigger, which creates even more anxiety as we no longer trust our ability to maintain equilibrium.

You may experience sudden feelings of terror that occur unexpectedly or may come from a specific trigger, such as driving or facing another situation you dread.

In some cases, panic attacks can be so intense that they resemble heart attack symptoms or other severe medical conditions. 

When these symptoms occur, you must visit your local hospital or emergency room, particularly if you are experiencing a severe medical issue.

Panic attacks often co-occur with other mental health conditions, such as PTSD or depression and can be very distressing.

Those with panic disorder may worry about when the next episode will occur and try to avoid situations that are likely to trigger another panic attack.

Common symptoms of a panic attack include:

  • Heart palpitations 
  • A choking sensation (which can make you feel like you’re having a heart attack or “losing your mind”)
  • Sweating
  • Trembling
  • Chest pain

Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD)

GAD is a long-term condition that causes persistent and excessive worry about various activities and events in a person’s daily life. 

Those who suffer from GAD rarely have peace of mind, as they often worry about various topics and situations simultaneously or one after the other. 

For instance, once a worrying situation is resolved, the person’s thoughts will automatically jump to the next anxiety-provoking topic. 

Those with GAD may worry about many things, including school, work, health and relationships. 

The unsettled mind cannot rest and may cause various symptoms that severely impair a person’s ability to function, including:

  • Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
  • Muscle tension and exhaustion
  • Restlessness
  • Difficulty focusing or concentrating

It is also common for people with GAD to suffer from co-occurring conditions such as depression and other anxiety-related disorders.

Social anxiety disorder

Also called social phobia, social anxiety disorder occurs when a person anticipates certain social situations or public performances with excessive fear or dread. 

Those with social anxiety disorder may worry about potential humiliation, rejection, embarrassment or ridicule during social interactions.

Additionally, the symptoms of social anxiety disorder may be experienced before, during or after the event or social activity.

In some cases, a person’s social anxiety can be so debilitating that it prevents them from eating or drinking in public, speaking in front of groups, going to parties, meeting new people or dating.

Symptoms of social anxiety disorder may include the following:

  • Rapid speech
  • Excessive blushing
  • Fear of being judged by others
  • Trembling
  • Palpitations
  • Feeling uncomfortable, particularly around strangers
  • Excessive sweating
  • Saying something then regretting it later, or ruminating over conversations you had with others and feeling embarrassed or humiliated.

Although a person with social anxiety may know that their fears are disproportionate or unfounded, they feel powerless to control or stop them.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

PTSD can develop after a person experiences or witnesses a traumatic event – such as a violent attack, serious accident, or natural disaster. 

If the traumatic situation or event was beyond the person’s control or an individual’s ability to process the upsetting event or experience is disrupted or impaired, these repressed thoughts, memories and emotional reactions often get ‘stored’ in a deeper part of the psyche. 

Although buried, these reactions continue to exist and will resurface in the consciousness long after the initial event has subsided. PTSD symptoms may appear months or even years after a traumatic event. 

Common symptoms of PTSD include:

  • Reliving or re-experiencing a traumatic event through flashbacks, nightmares about the traumatic event or hallucinations
  • Bouts of anger
  • Increased alertness
  • Severe irritability
  • Trouble sleeping or concentrating
  • Avoiding people, places, objects or memories that remind you of a traumatic event
  • Intrusive or distressing thoughts – such as intense guilt or sadness
  • Flat or blunted affect

PTSD symptoms are grouped into four categories, including the following:

  • Arousal and reactive symptoms
  • Avoiding reminders
  • Intrusive thoughts
  • Negative beliefs, feelings and emotions resulting from traumatic exposure

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)

OCD is an anxiety disorder typically characterised by uncontrollable recurring thoughts, ideas or sensations (obsessions) that lead to repetitive behaviours (compulsions), such as hand washing, repeatedly checking things or cleaning. 

These behaviours serve as an anxiety-reducing function; without them, an individual may feel terrified and vulnerable.

OCD obsessions are repetitive and persistent, and involve unwanted thoughts, urges or images that are intrusive and cause much distress and anxiety to sufferers. 

Obsessive-compulsive disorder usually involves both compulsions and obsessions. However, a person may only have one or the other; for example, they may have compulsions or obsessions but may not experience both simultaneously. 

OCD sufferers may try to ignore unwanted thoughts or urges or attempt to get rid of them by performing a compulsive ritual or behaviour.

Common symptoms of OCD include the following:

  • Persistent, repetitive, and unwanted thoughts
  • Intrusive urges or images
  • Ritualistic or compulsive behaviour to eliminate unwanted thoughts, such as excessive hand washing or repeating the same number or word over and over
  • Problems with work or school – for instance, you may experience higher absenteeism or lateness due to time required for repetitive actions

OCD symptoms can be categorised into ‘obsessions’ and ‘compulsions’. 

Obsession symptoms

Some examples of obsession symptoms may include the following:

  • Having doubts or concerns that you have turned off your hair straighteners or locked the windows before leaving the house.
  • Thoughts of acting inappropriately in public, such as shouting or swearing at strangers.
  • Fear of contamination – for instance, you may fear touching objects others have touched.
  • Experiencing distress when things are not a certain way – for example, you may get upset when objects are not facing a specific way, or things are not done in an orderly fashion.
  • Avoiding certain situations that may trigger symptoms or obsessions, such as shaking hands with strangers or hugging other people.

Compulsion symptoms

OCD compulsion symptoms involve engaging in specific repetitive behaviours you feel compelled to perform.

These compulsions are an individual’s attempt to reduce anxiety or distress or ‘prevent something bad from happening’.

Some examples of compulsion symptoms include the following:

  • Checking doors or windows repeatedly to ensure they are locked.
  • Counting in specific patterns or sequences.
  • Washing or scrubbing your hands until they are raw or bleeding.
  • Repeatedly checking that the stove or oven is off. 
  • Silently repeating a word, phrase or prayer.
  • Organising the food in your cupboards so that any cans or tinned goods all face the same way.

As mentioned, anxiety disorders frequently accompany other mental health issues, such as depression and substance abuse. In these cases, a dual-diagnosis treatment program is highly recommended.

These treatment programs involve an integrated approach where various therapies and modalities are customised to each individual, such as behavioural therapies, trauma-informed treatment, mental health treatment and substance use disorder programs.

Personalised treatment programs take a ‘whole’ person approach to treatment, meaning they address an individual’s presenting symptoms and any other underlying mental health problems, giving people a much better chance at lasting recovery.

Can anxiety disorders be treated?

People with anxiety disorders can be successfully treated with professional care. 

Treatment success varies; some will respond to treatment after a few months, while others may need much longer. 

Furthermore, treatment can be complicated for those with more than one anxiety disorder or coexisting conditions, such as depression or substance use disorder.

Each individual has unique life experiences, medical history, and anxiety patterns, so how they respond to treatment will also differ.

For anxiety treatment to be effective, it must be tailored to the individual. 

Personalised treatment programs typically involve a combination of therapies and approaches, including psychotherapy, behavioural therapy, trauma treatment, lifestyle changes, and medication.

Talking therapies can be highly effective as they support the exploration of behavioural patterns associated with specific life events that may trigger anxiety. 

Treatment for anxiety disorders will depend on factors such as your history, anxiety disorder type, severity of symptoms, and whether you have other physical or mental health conditions.

However, your anxiety treatment program may include the following:

These treatments can help you learn new coping skills, allowing you to practise healthier ways of thinking and behaving and experience more peace of mind.

Specific medications can also treat anxiety disorders, including beta-blockers, benzodiazepines and antidepressants. 

It would help if you remembered that recovery from anxiety is a journey that takes time and dedicated persistence. 

Many people find that focusing on developing positive coping skills rather than attempting to eliminate every symptom of anxiety is helpful. 

Anxiety disorder treatment at Centres for Health and Healing

At Centres for Health and Healing, we provide holistic treatment programs for anxiety disorders shaped around your personal preferences and therapeutic needs.

Our team takes great pride in treating the whole person, not just the symptoms of anxiety disorder, combining traditional treatment methods, ancient wisdom, and the latest research to ensure deep, transformational healing.

Recovery is a lifelong journey. 

Therefore, we are committed to providing a comprehensive aftercare plan to empower and encourage you to maintain lasting well-being and recovery after leaving our treatment centre.

We aim to guide and support you and your loved ones through your recovery transformation and provide the necessary tools for you to lead a positive and fulfilling life.

Please get in touch with us at our recovery centre in Ontario to learn more about our anxiety disorder treatment options and take the first step towards healing and improving your quality of life.

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