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Am Fam Physician. 2006;74(8):1393-1394

What is anxiety?

Anxiety (ang-ZY-uh-tee) can be a normal “alarm system” alerting you to danger. Your heart beats fast. Your palms get sweaty. Your mind races. Sometimes anxiety can give you energy to get things done. But anxiety can get out of control and make you feel afraid for no reason.

Are there different types of anxiety?

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

What is generalized anxiety disorder?

Generalized anxiety disorder is ongoing worry or fear that isn’t related to a certain event or situation. It also can be worry or fear that is out of proportion to what you would expect (for instance, worrying a lot about a child who is healthy). Symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder include muscle tension, trembling, shortness of breath, fast heartbeat, dry mouth, dizziness, nausea, irritability, loss of sleep, and not being able to focus.

What is panic disorder?

Panic disorder is another type of anxiety. It occurs when you have repeated periods of very bad panic, called panic attacks. Panic attacks last about five to 30 minutes and may include any of the symptoms listed in the box below. Panic attacks can lead to phobias if they aren’t treated.

Panic Attack Symptoms

  • Feeling like you’re going to choke

  • Chest pressure or chest pain

  • Pounding heart

  • Racing pulse

  • Dizziness or lightheadedness

  • Shortness of breath or tightness in the throat

  • Sweating

  • Trembling or shaking

  • Nausea

  • Tingling or numbness in the hands or feet

  • Hot flushes or chills

  • Sense of unreality or dreamlike sensations

  • Fear of losing control, doing something embarrassing, “going crazy,” or dying

What is a phobia?

A phobia is a very bad fear of something. Some people have phobias of crowds, bridges, snakes, spiders, heights, open places, or social situations. A phobia is a problem only if it keeps you from living a normal life (for example, being afraid to leave home).

What causes anxiety disorders?

If you have an anxiety disorder, your body mistakenly triggers your “alarm system” when there is no danger. This may be because of a chemical imbalance in your body. It also may be related to a memory, to a side effect of a medicine, or to an illness.

Tips to Cope with Anxiety

  • Control your worry. Pick a time and place to do your worrying. Make it the same time and place every day. Spend 30 minutes thinking about your worries and what you can do about them. Then let go of the worry, and go on with your day.

  • Learn ways to relax. These may include muscle relaxation, yoga, or deep breathing.

  • Exercise regularly. People who have anxiety often stop exercising. But exercise can give you a sense of well-being and help with anxiety.

  • Get plenty of sleep.

  • Do not abuse alcohol or drugs. They seem to help you relax, but in the long run, they make anxiety worse and cause more problems.

  • Avoid caffeine. It may make you feel more anxious because it stimulates your nervous system. Also avoid over-the-counter diet pills, and cough and cold medicines with a decongestant.

Can anxiety disorders be treated?

Yes. Talk with your doctor if you think you have an anxiety disorder. He or she can help you with the skills you need to cope with your anxiety. Your doctor may also suggest counseling and give you medicine if you need it. The most important thing is to take action. Anything you do will help give you a sense of control over your anxiety.

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