We feel anxious or nervous at times, and that is ok! Anxiety can be a helpful emotion because it signals that something important is happening and that we need to pay attention. For example, it can motivate us to action or warn us of danger. However, when we experience anxiety that causes significant distress or makes it more difficult for us to engage in valued activities, this is considered an anxiety disorder.
What are anxiety disorders?
Anxiety disorders are mental illnesses. There are different types of anxiety disorders, including:
A phobia is an intense fear of a specific thing like an object or animal, or situation. Most of us are scared of something, but these feelings don’t disrupt our lives. People with a diagnosis of specific phobia disorder, change the way they live in order to avoid the feared object or situation.
Panic disorder involves repeated and unexpected panic attacks. A panic attack is a feeling of sudden and intense fear that lasts for a short period of time. It causes a lot of physical sensations like a racing heart, shortness of breath, light-headedness, numbness or tingling in extremities, or nausea. Panic attacks can be a reaction to a stressful situation or a part of other anxiety disorders. With panic disorder, panic attacks seem to happen out of the blue. People who experience panic disorder fear more panic attacks and may worry that something bad will happen as a result of the panic attack. Some people change their routine to avoid triggering more panic attacks.
Agoraphobia is fear of being in a situation where a person can’t escape or find help if they experience a panic attack or other feelings of anxiety. Situations commonly linked to agoraphobia include small, enclosed, or isolated places, lines, and crowds. A person diagnosed with agoraphobia may avoid public places or even avoid leaving their homes.
Social anxiety disorder
Social anxiety disorder involves intense fear of being embarrassed or evaluated negatively by others. As a result, people avoid social situations. This is more than shyness. It can have a big impact on work or school performance and relationships.
Generalized anxiety disorder
Generalized anxiety disorder is excessive worry about several everyday problems for at least six months. People with this type of anxiety report that they feel as though they are worried most of the time and that the worry feels hard to control. Many people experience physical symptoms too, including muscle tension and sleep problems.
Other mental illnesses
Some mental illnesses are not considered as anxiety disorders, though anxiety or fear is a major part of the illnesses.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
Obsessive-compulsive disorder involves unwanted thoughts, images, or urges that cause anxiety or distress (obsessions) followed by specific repeated actions intended to reduce that distress (compulsions). Obsessions or compulsions often take a lot of time and cause significant distress.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Post-traumatic stress disorder can occur after a very scary or traumatic event, such as abuse, an accident, or a natural disaster. Symptoms of PTSD include reliving the event through nightmares or flashbacks, avoiding reminders of the traumatic event, and feeling unsafe in the world, even when a person isn’t in danger.
Who do they affect?
Anxiety disorders can affect people of any age, and they are among the most common mental health problem in Canada (Dobson et al., 2020). Sometimes, anxiety disorders are triggered by a specific event or stressful life experience. Anxiety disorders may be more likely to occur when we have certain ways of looking at things (like believing that everything must be perfect) or learn unhelpful coping strategies from others. But sometimes there just doesn’t seem to be a reason.
What can I do about them?
Many people who experience an anxiety disorder think that they ‘should’ just be able to ‘get over it’ on their own. Others may need time to recognize how deeply anxiety affects their life. However, anxiety disorders are real illnesses that affect a person’s well-being. As a first step, it is important to talk to a medical doctor about mental health concerns. Some physical health conditions cause symptoms of anxiety. A medical doctor will look at all possible causes of anxiety to determine if there are any contributing medical conditions.
Anxiety is part of being human, but excessive anxiety can cause distress. Treatment can help by teaching skills to develop helpful alternative thoughts and behaviours to reduce anxiety over time.
A number of effective treatments for anxiety disorders are available. Treatment depends on the symptoms and cause of anxiety, but most include some combination of the following:
An effective form of psychotherapy for anxiety is cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT). CBT teaches you how your thoughts, feelings, and behaviours interact to cause anxiety. A goal of CBT is to identify and change the patterns of thinking that increase anxiety. CBT can also help you identify and replace behaviours likely to increase anxiety in the long term. It’s often the first treatment to try for mild or moderate problems with anxiety. One benefit of choosing CBT to treat anxiety over other types of treatment is that it aims to teach skills to manage and dissipate anxiety long-term, even when treatment has ended (van Dis et al. 2020).
To learn more about our Ontario Structured Psychotherapy program, provided in partnership with Across Boundaries and Hong Fook Mental Health Association to individuals in York Region, South Simcoe, North York, North Etobicoke and Malton, visit www.osp-cmha.ca.
Some people also find antianxiety or antidepressant medication helpful. Medication can help with the physical sensations associated with anxiety. It may also make anxious thoughts less frequent or intense, so it can be easier to learn helpful coping strategies. Some people take medication until their anxiety is controlled enough to try therapies like CBT.
Support groups—in person or online—may be a good place to share your experiences, learn from others, and connect with people who understand.
Many different skills can help people manage anxiety, such as stress management, problem-solving, and relaxation. Mindfulness—developing awareness of the present moment without judgement—may also help. Practices that support wellness, such as eating well, exercising, having fun, and connecting with others, are also important.
How can I help a loved one?
Supporting a loved one who is experiencing an anxiety disorder can be difficult. You may not understand why your loved one feels or acts a certain way. Some people who experience an anxiety disorder feel like they have to do things a certain way or avoid things or situations, and this can create frustration or conflict with others. You may feel pressured to take part in these behaviours or adjust your own behaviours to protect or avoid upsetting a loved one. Support can be a delicate balance, but with treatment, you should expect recovery—in time.
Here are some general tips.
- Remind yourself that the illness is the problem—anger, frustration, or behaviours related to anxiety are nobody’s fault.
- Be patient—learning and practicing new coping strategies takes time.
- If your loved one is learning new skills, offer to help them practice.
- Listen and offer support, but avoid pushing unwanted advice.
- Set boundaries and seek support for yourself, if needed.
- If other family members are affected by a loved one’s anxiety disorder, consider seeking family counselling.
Dobson, K. G., Vigod, S., Mustard, C., & Smith, P. M. (2020). Trends in the prevalence of depression and anxiety disorders among working-age Canadian adults between 2000 and 2016. Doi: https://www.doi.org/10.25318/82-003-x202001200002-eng
Van Dis, E. A., Van Veen, S. C., Hagenaars, M. A., Batelaan, N. M., Bockting, C. L., Van Den Heuvel, R. M., Cuijpers, P., & Engelhard, I. M. (2020). Long-term outcomes of cognitive behavioral therapy for anxiety-related disorders: a systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA psychiatry, 77(3), 265-273.