Everyone experiences feelings of anxiety now and then. It’s your brain’s natural reaction to things that cause stress: something like a presentation at work, an argument with a coworker, or even moving to someplace new.
Both anxiety and stress manifest similar symptoms, i.e. irritability, insomnia, difficulty concentrating and fatigue. However, while stress is typically caused by external triggers that act as stressors (exp: a pressing deadline or an oppressive work environment), anxiety, on the other hand, is defined by persistent, excessive worries that don’t go away even in the absence of a stressor.
With the proper coping mechanisms, both mild stress and mild anxiety can be treated. But when your anxiety remains persistent and overwhelming, it might indicate something more serious.
Fear, anxiety, and anxiety disorders - what’s the difference?
Fear is an emotional response to an immediate threat, and is more associated with the fight, flight, or freeze reaction - either staying to fight, leaving to escape from danger, or freezing and being unable to act in the face of danger.
Anxiety refers to an anticipation of a future concern or threat and is associated with the feeling of fear and avoidant behaviour. It stems from your brain’s interpretation of potential threats to your safety. While anxiety can cause distress, it isn’t considered a clinical condition.
The experience of fear and anxiety usually passes with time as we ‘self-regulate’, perhaps through crying, venting, talking out our frustrations or other relieving strategies. But if these feelings of deep fear or anxiety linger for more than two weeks, reaching out to a mental health professional or a doctor is strongly recommended.
Anxiety disorders are a clinical condition. The limbic system (a set of structures in the brain that deal with emotions and memory) monitors our body’s reaction to our surroundings. It evaluates an event’s threat or emotional significance. Based on this, it organises an immediate response - whether to fight, flee or freeze.
For people with anxiety disorders, the amygdala (which plays a crucial role in processing strong emotions, such as fear or pleasure, in the limbic system) becomes so sensitive that it overreacts to situations that aren’t threatening. The brain inadvertently crafts fears from problems, thoughts and memories unrelated to genuine dangers.
Types of anxiety disorders
There are many kinds of anxiety disorders. Among them include:
Generalized anxiety disorder
Agoraphobia (the fear of places that might cause feelings of anxiety)
Social anxiety disorder
Post-traumatic stress disorder
Separation anxiety disorder
How is anxiety diagnosed?
A few things that are considered in diagnosing anxiety disorders are:
If the person affected experiences anxious feelings for a duration that lasts for at least two weeks.
If the condition leads to an inability to function normally at work or home.
Before a diagnosis or treatment, a health professional must conduct a thorough diagnostic evaluation, including an interview and possibly a physical examination, to rule out physical problems that may be the root cause of the symptoms.
How is an anxiety disorder treated?
Although each anxiety disorder has unique characteristics, most respond well to two types of treatment: medication and psychotherapy.
While medication does not entirely cure anxiety disorders, it can significantly relieve symptoms. The most commonly used medications are anti-anxiety medications (generally prescribed only for a short time) and antidepressants.
Beta-blockers, used for heart conditions, are sometimes used to control physical symptoms of anxiety.
Psychotherapy or “talk therapy”, is sometimes used alone to treat anxiety. For severe anxiety, it may often be used along with anti-anxiety medication.
Cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) is effective in treating anxiety. CBT is a form of treatment focused on the present and problem-solving. It helps people recognise distorted thinking to reshape negative behaviours and thought patterns.
Depending on the severity of the anxiety, treatment can take up to a few weeks or longer. Significant improvement can be made in 10 to 15 sessions in many cases.
Self-help and Coping
For many people, stress management techniques and medication can be helpful. Getting enough sleep and eating a healthy diet while avoiding alcohol and tobacco can also help reduce anxiety symptoms.
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