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Anxiety disorders

Anxiety disorders include panic disorder, phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

It is normal to feel anxious from time to time, but a person with an anxiety disorder has problems controlling their worries to such an extent that they interfere with everyday life.

Anxiety disorders affect around 1 in 20 people in the UK.

What are the types of anxiety disorders?

There are several recognised types of anxiety disorders, including:

  • Panic disorder: People with this condition have feelings of terror that strike suddenly and repeatedly with no warning. Other symptoms of a panic attack include sweating, chest pain, palpitations (irregular heartbeats), and a feeling of choking, which may make the person feel like he or she is having a heart attack.
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD): People with OCD are plagued by constant thoughts or fears that cause them to perform certain rituals or routines. The disturbing thoughts are called obsessions, and the rituals are called compulsions. An example is a person with an unreasonable fear of germs who constantly washes his or her hands.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): PTSD is a condition that can develop following a traumatic and/or terrifying event, such as a sexual or physical assault, the unexpected death of a loved one, or a natural disaster. People with PTSD often have lasting and frightening thoughts and memories of the event, and tend to be emotionally numb.
  • Social anxiety disorder: Also called social phobia, social anxiety disorder involves overwhelming worry and self-consciousness about everyday social situations. The worry often centres on a fear of being judged by others, or behaving in a way that might cause embarrassment or lead to ridicule.
  • Specific phobias: A specific phobia is an intense fear of a specific object or situation, such as snakes, heights, or flying. The level of fear usually is inappropriate to the situation and may cause the person to avoid common, everyday situations.
  • Generalised anxiety disorder: This disorder involves excessive, unrealistic worry and tension, even if there is little or nothing to provoke the anxiety.

What are the symptoms of an anxiety disorder?

Symptoms vary depending on the type of anxiety disorder, but general symptoms include:

  • Feelings of panic, fear and uneasiness
  • Uncontrollable, obsessive thoughts
  • Repeated thoughts or flashbacks of traumatic experiences
  • Nightmares
  • Ritualistic behaviours, such as repeated hand washing
  • Problems sleeping
  • Cold or sweaty hands and/or feet
  • Shortness of breath
  • Palpitations
  • An inability to be still and calm
  • Dry mouth
  • Numbness or tingling in the hands or feet
  • Nausea
  • Muscle tension
  • Dizziness

What causes anxiety disorders?

The exact cause of anxiety disorders is unknown; but anxiety disorders -- like other forms of mental health disorders -- are not the result of personal weakness or a character flaw. As scientists continue their research into mental health problems, it is becoming clear that many of these disorders are caused by a combination of factors, including changes in the brain and environmental stress.

Like certain illnesses, such as diabetes, anxiety disorders may be caused by chemical imbalances in the body. Studies have shown that severe or long-lasting stress can change the balance of chemicals in the brain that control mood. Other studies have shown that people with certain anxiety disorders have changes in certain brain structures that control memory or mood. In addition, studies have shown that anxiety disorders run in families, which means that they can be inherited from one or both parents, like hair or eye colour. Certain environmental factors -- such as a trauma or significant event -- may trigger an anxiety disorder in people who have an inherited susceptibility to developing the disorder.

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