Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. For regularly updated information on a variety of health topics, please visit familydoctor.org, the AAFP patient education website.

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Am Fam Physician. 2000;61(5):1527-1528

What is anxiety?

Anxiety can be a normal “alarm system” alerting you to danger. Imagine coming home and finding a burglar in your home. Your heart beats fast. Your palms get sweaty. Your mind races. In this situation, anxiety can be helpful. It can add an extra spark to help you get out of danger. Under more normal but busy times, it can give you energy to help you get things done.
But sometimes anxiety can be out of control, giving you an overwhelming sense of dread and fear for no apparent reason. This kind of anxiety can disrupt your life.

Are there different kinds of anxiety?

Yes. Anxiety can be a general feeling of worry, an attack of feeling panicky, a fear of a certain situation or a response to a traumatic experience.

What causes anxiety disorders?

Suppose the fire alarm goes off in your home. You race around to find the fire. Instead, you find that the alarm isn't working properly. You take it in to be repaired.
It's the same with anxiety disorders. Your body's alarm system goes off when there is no real danger. This may be due to a chemical imbalance in your body. It may also be related to an unconscious memory, to a side effect of medicine or to an illness.

Can anxiety be treated?

Yes. Your family doctor can help you form a plan to cope with your anxiety. Your doctor can also prescribe medicine if it's needed. Here are some tips on coping with anxiety.

  • Control your worry. Pick a place and time to do your worrying. Make it the same time in the same place every day. Spend 30 minutes thinking about your concerns and what you can do about them. Try not to dwell on what “might” happen. Focus more on what's really happening.

  • Relax. You can learn ways to help you relax. These may include muscle relaxation, yoga, biofeedback and deep breathing. Muscle relaxation is easy. Start by choosing a muscle and holding it tight for a few seconds. Then relax the muscle. Do this with all of your muscles. Try starting with your feet and working your way up your body.

  • Confront the things that have made you anxious in the past. Begin by just picturing yourself confronting these things. After you begin to feel more comfortable picturing yourself confronting these things, you can begin to actually face them.

You might find it helpful to make a list of things that cause you to feel anxious. Start with the thing that causes you the least anxiety and work your way up.
If you feel yourself getting anxious, practice one of your relaxation techniques or focus on a simple task such as counting backward.
Although the feelings of anxiety are scary, they won't hurt you. Label the level of your fear from zero to 10 and watch it go up and down. Notice that it doesn't stay at a very high level for more than a few seconds. When the fear comes, accept it. Wait and give it time to pass without running away from it.

  • Exercise regularly. People who have anxiety often quit exercising. But exercise can give you a sense of well-being and help decrease your feelings of anxiety.

  • Get plenty of sleep. Don't rely on alcohol or drugs. It may seem that alcohol or drugs relax you. But in the long run, they worsen anxiety and depression.

  • Avoid caffeine. It's found in coffee, tea, soft drinks and chocolate. Caffeine may increase your sense of anxiety. Also avoid over-the-counter diet pills, and cough and cold medicines.

  • Use anxiety medicine if it helps. Your doctor may give you medicine to help reduce anxiety while you learn new ways to respond to the things that cause your anxiety.

  • Talk about your anxiety with your doctor. This is important so your doctor can make sure your plan is working. You may also need counseling with your doctor or with a counselor. Counseling can help you learn to express your needs and cope with your feelings. Support groups can also be helpful.

The most important thing is to take action. Any action you take will be helpful because it will give you a sense of control over your anxiety.

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