Anxiety disorder is a general term that focuses on many forms of abnormal and pathological fears. Anxiety disorders only became an accepted diagnosis by psychiatrists toward the end of the 1800s, according to the GE Berrios book, "Anxiety Disorders: A Conceptual History." There are two general approaches to treating anxiety disorders in the short and long term: therapy and medication. By far, though, the most popular approach is getting the patient to see a mental health counselor along with taking medications, primarily benzodiazepines, including Valium, Xanax or Ativan, and antidepressants, like Zoloft, Paxil, Lexapro and others, according to the Anxiety Disorders Association of America.
Diagnosis and Causes
There are as many causes as there are varieties of anxiety disorders. One of the causes is biological--a lack of ability in the brain to process emotional concerns and the feeling of fear. Another is the immediate cessation of abusing alcohol or drugs. Stress can be a contributing factor, too, and still other people experience anxiety about day-to-day activities, such as driving on the freeway, being around large crowds or returning to a location where a previous traumatic event occurred.
To help your doctor or psychiatrist correctly diagnose your anxiety disorder, it is critical that you share details of how you feel in different situations, because there are different treatment approaches for different types of anxiety.
People suffering from panic disorder experience sudden attacks of apprehension and intense fear. Side effects of those feelings often include shaking, shortness of breath, pain in the chest that radiates into the neck--often thought by victims to be a heart attack--confusion and nausea.
Recurring panic attacks, which often seem to come out of nowhere to some patients, come with recurring consequences, such as constant worrying about having another attack, total fear about future attacks or behavioral changes made in an attempt to circumvent another attack, according to information published on the Psych Central web site.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder
This condition is long-term, and people who suffer from generalized anxiety tend to have symptoms from no known causes or effect, according to the book "Issues in the Long-Term Treatment of Anxiety Disorders." Generalized Anxiety Disorder, also known as GAD, is the most common form of anxiety experienced by older adults. It tends to last for six months or more, according to a 2008 Psychiatric Times article.
Also known as social anxiety disorder, this type of anxiety makes it extremely difficult for the person suffering from this affliction to be around people, especially large crowds. Another common characteristic of social phobia is the persistent fear of embarrassment and public humiliation. Physical symptoms of social anxiety include sweating, difficulty speaking and shortness of breath.
Short-Term Treatments for Anxiety
Prescription medications, especially benzodiazepines and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), are the most common form of short-term anxiety treatment. These medications are metabolized by the body quickly, and can begin working immediately or within a couple of days. However, taking prescription medication is only meant for short-term relief because benzodiazepines, like Valium and Xanax, are highly addicting.
Long-Term Treatments for Anxiety
The most favorable treatment for long-term relief from anxiety disorders is therapy--specifically cognitive-behavioral therapy, or CBT. This approach teaches that thought influences behavior, which in turn influences action; by exploring the causes of a person's anxiety, it is possible to discern the steps leading up to the episode and teach that person how to change his behavior once he recognizes what is happening. Antidepressant medications also are used in long-term treatment plans--drugs like Paxil, Lexapro and Zoloft, to name a few.
Short-Term Goals for Anxiety Disorders
While short-term treatment for anxiety does include taking benzodiazepines at the onset of a panic attack, it is important that the patient establish short-term goals to help her start to gain independence over what can be a debilitating condition. Short-term goals can include setting specific tasks to complete in a short period of time, such as going grocery shopping, or looking for a job that will help the patient gain independence, said Dr. Gary Lawson, a psychologist with a private practice in La Jolla, Calif. and author of the book "Alcoholism and the Family."
"It's important for someone suffering from anxiety to establish short-term goals for relief, including any type of exercise, taking courses that teach techniques for relaxing, meditating and breathing, like yoga, or writing lists of simple tasks to complete," Dr. Lawson said. "It's also important to learn to recognize when you feel a panic attack coming on, and to use the tools you've learned-breathing, trying to relax every muscle in your body, or even recognizing anxiety as something tangible that you can imagine leaving your body."
Long-Term Goals for Anxiety Disorders
As hard as it may seem to someone suffering from anxiety, especially when it is derived from post-traumatic stress, it is critical that the patient revisit the site where the trauma occurred, or to discuss the source of his anxiety in detail during a therapy session, Dr. Lawson said.
"This is necessary in order to get past any phobias the patient may have that impair their ability to live a normal, stress-free life," he said. "For instance, if you have a fear of flying, write that down but then you need to write your long-term solution down next to it, such as 'I can get on an airplane and travel to see my relatives.' It may involve extra work with your therapist to overcome that fear, but that is the ultimate long-term goal of anxiety treatment-facing and overcoming your fears based on learned and conditioned responses."