Obsessive-compulsive disorder; Panic disorder; Phobias; Post-traumatic stress disorder
Fear and stress reactions are essential for human survival. They enable people to pursue important goals and to respond appropriately to danger. In a healthy individual, the stress response (fight, fright, or flight) is provoked by a genuine threat or challenge and is used as a spur for appropriate action.
An anxiety disorder, however, involves an excessive or inappropriate state of arousal characterized by feelings of apprehension, uncertainty, or fear. The word is derived from the Latin, angere, which means to choke or strangle. The anxiety response is often not triggered by a real threat. Nevertheless it can still paralyze the individual into inaction or withdrawal. An anxiety disorder persists, while an appropriate response to a threat resolves, once the threat is removed.
Anxiety disorders have been classified according to the severity and duration of their symptoms and specific behavioral characteristics. Categories include:
GAD and panic disorder are the most common. Anxiety disorders are usually caused by a combination of psychological, physical, and genetic factors, and treatment is, in general, very effective.
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is the most common anxiety disorder. It affects about 5% of Americans over the course of their lifetimes. It is characterized by the following:
Given these conditions, a diagnosis of GAD is confirmed if three or more of the following symptoms are present (only one for children) on most days for 6 months:
Symptoms should cause significant distress and impair normal functioning and not be due to a medical condition, another mood disorder, or psychosis. Pure GAD is uncommon. It typically occurs with other mood disorders (anxiety or depression) or substance use.
Panic disorder is characterized by periodic attacks of anxiety or terror (panic attacks). They usually last 15 - 30 minutes, although residual effects can persist much longer. The frequency and severity of acute states of anxiety determine the diagnosis. (Panic attacks can occur in nearly every anxiety disorder, not just panic disorder. In other anxiety disorders, however, there is always a cue or specific trigger for the attack.) A diagnosis of panic disorder is made under the following conditions:
Symptoms of a Panic Attack. During a panic attack a person feels intense fear or discomfort with at least four or more of the following symptoms:
Women may be more likely than men to experience shortness of breath, nausea, and feelings of being smothered. More men than women have sweating and abdominal pain. Panic attacks that include only one or two symptoms, such as dizziness and heart pounding, are known as limited-symptom attacks. These may be either residual symptoms after a major panic attack or precursors to full-blown attacks.
Frequency of Panic Attacks. Frequency of attacks can vary widely. Some people have frequent attacks (for example, every week) that occur for months; others may have clusters of daily attacks followed by weeks or months of remission.
Triggers of Panic Attacks. Panic attacks may occur spontaneously or in response to a particular situation. Recalling or re-experiencing even harmless circumstances surrounding an original attack may trigger subsequent panic attacks.
Phobias, manifested by overwhelming and irrational fears, are common. In most cases, people can avoid or at least endure phobic situations, but in some cases, as with agoraphobia, the anxiety associated with the feared object or situation can be incapacitating.
Agoraphobia. Agoraphobia is described as fear of being in public places or open areas. (The term is derived from the Greek word agora, meaning outdoor marketplace.) In its severest form, agoraphobia is characterized by a paralyzing terror of being in places or situations from which the patient feels there is neither escape nor accessible help in case of an attack. (One patient described the terror of going outside as opening a door onto a landscape filled with snakes.) Consequently, people with agoraphobia confine themselves to places in which they feel safe, usually at home. The patient with agoraphobia often makes complicated plans in order to avoid confronting feared situations and places.
Social Phobia. Social phobia, also known as social anxiety disorder, is the fear of being publicly scrutinized and humiliated and is manifested by extreme shyness and discomfort in social settings. This phobia often leads people to avoid social situations and is not due to a physical or mental problem (such as stuttering, acne, or personality disorders). Social phobia has been termed "the neglected anxiety disorder" because it is often not properly diagnosed.
The associated symptoms vary in intensity, ranging from mild and tolerable anxiety to a full-blown panic attack. (Unlike a panic attack, however, social phobia is always directly related to a social situation.) Symptoms include sweating, shortness of breath, pounding heart, dry mouth, and tremor.
The disorder may be further categorized as generalized or specific social phobia:
Children with social anxiety develop symptoms in settings that include their peers, not just adults, and they may include tantrums, blushing, or not being able to speak to unfamiliar people. These children should be able to have normal social relationships with familiar people, however.
Specific Phobias. Specific phobias (formerly simple phobias) are an irrational fear of specific objects or situations. Specific phobias are among the most common medical disorders. Most cases are mild and not significant enough to require treatment.
The most common phobias are fear of animals (usually spiders, snakes, or mice), flying (pterygophobia), heights (acrophobia), water, injections, public transportation, confined spaces (claustrophobia), dentists (odontiatophobia), storms, tunnels, and bridges.
When confronting the object or situation, the phobic person experiences panicky feelings, sweating, avoidance behavior, difficulty breathing, and a rapid heartbeat. Most phobic adults are aware of the irrationality of their fear, and many endure intense anxiety rather than disclose their disorder.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is time-consuming, distressing, and can disrupt normal functioning. Much research suggests that a critical feature in this disorder is an overinflated sense of responsibility, in which the patient's thoughts center around possible dangers and an urgent need to do something about them.
Over half of OCD-sufferers have obsessive thoughts without the ritualistic compulsive behavior. Although individuals recognize that the obsessive thoughts and ritualized behavior patterns are senseless and excessive, they cannot stop them in spite of strenuous efforts to ignore or suppress the thoughts or actions. OCD often accompanies depression or other anxiety disorders. There is some evidence that the symptoms improve over time and that nearly half will eventually recover completely or have only minor symptoms.
Symptoms in children may be mistaken for behavioral problems (taking too long to do homework because of perfectionism, refusing to perform a chore because of fear of germs). Children do not usually recognize that their obsessions or compulsions are excessive.
Associated Obsessive Disorders. Certain other disorders that may be part of, or strongly associated with, the OCD spectrum include the following:
Obsessive-Compulsive Personality. OCD should not be confused with obsessive-compulsive personality, which defines certain character traits (being a perfectionist, excessively conscientious, morally rigid, or preoccupied with rules and order). These traits do not necessarily occur in people with obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a severe, persistent emotional reaction to a traumatic event that severely impairs one‚ ' s life. It is classified as an anxiety disorder because of its symptoms. Not every traumatic event leads to PTSD, however. There are two criteria that must be present to qualify for a diagnosis of PTSD:
Triggering Events. PTSD is triggered by violent or traumatic events that are usually outside the normal range of human experience. War is a prime example. There is some evidence that events most likely to trigger PTSD are those that involve deliberate and destructive behavior (murder, rape) and those that are prolonged or physically challenging. Such events include, but are not limited to, experiencing or witnessing sexual assaults, accidents, military combat, natural disasters (such as earthquakes), or unexpected deaths of loved ones. PTSD may also occur in people who have serious illness and receive aggressive treatments or who have close family members or friends with such conditions.
Symptoms of PTSD. There are three basic sets of symptoms associated with PTSD. They may begin immediately after the event or can develop up to a year afterward:
To further qualify for a diagnosis of PTSD, patients must have at least one symptom in the re-experiencing category, three avoidance symptoms, and two arousal symptoms. Symptoms are chronic (3 months or more). Symptoms should also not be associated with alcohol, medications, or drugs and should not be intensifications of a pre-existing psychological disorder.
Acute Stress Disorder. In a syndrome called acute stress disorder, symptoms of PTSD occur within 2 days to 4 weeks after the traumatic event. Most people with acute stress disorder go on to develop PTSD.
Long-Term Outlook. The long-term impact of a traumatic event is uncertain. PTSD may cause physical changes in the brain, and in some cases the disorder can last a lifetime.
Separation anxiety disorder almost always occurs in children. It is suspected in children who are excessively anxious about separation from important family members or from home. For a diagnosis of separation anxiety disorder, the child should also exhibit at least three of the following symptoms for at least 4 weeks:
Separation anxiety often disappears as the child grows older, but if not addressed, it may lead to panic disorder, agoraphobia, or combinations of anxiety disorders.
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