By Nathan Ferreira
Stress is a normal part of life; people often experience stress when they face crises or when they have to make major life decisions. For most people stress comes and goes. This is, however, not the case for people with anxiety disorders. Anxiety disorders are “a group of mental disorders characterised by significant feelings of anxiety and fear. Anxiety is a worry about future events and fear is a reaction to current events.”
Anxiety disorders include: Generalised Anxiety Disorder (chronic and exaggerated anxiety and fear about everyday things, such as job responsibilities or household chores), Panic Disorder (recurring panic attacks that cause physical and psychological distress), Specific Phobia (anxiety and fear triggered by a specific stimulus, for example a fear of flying or a fear of spiders), Agoraphobia (anxiety and fear about being in a place or situation where escape may be difficult or embarrassing and no help may be available, sometimes resulting in a person refusing to leave their house), Social Anxiety Disorder (fear and avoidance of public embarrassment, humiliation or social interaction) and Separation Anxiety Disorder (anxiety and fear about being separated from loved ones or special places).
Anxiety disorders are usually accompanied by severe physical symptoms, including chest pains, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, headaches, and muscle tension. The numerous physical symptoms often cause people to believe that they have medical disorders.
There is no test to diagnose anxiety disorder: during a consultation a doctor usually asks about a patient’s medical history and completes a physical examination. If no physical illness is found, the patient is then referred to a psychologist or psychiatrist for an evaluation and possible diagnosis.
There are often links between anxiety disorders and other mental disorders, for example depression can increase anxiety symptoms and vice versa.
Possible causes of anxiety disorder include: changes in the brain, environmental stress, and genetic factors. There is also evidence that alcohol and drug use can cause or increase anxiety disorders.
Cognitive behavioural therapy can help a person recognise and change thought patterns and behaviours that trigger anxiety. Doctors sometimes prescribe anti-depressants or other medications as a form of treatment. A person can also manage their symptoms by maintaining a healthy diet and lifestyle: this includes eating right, doing exercise and getting enough sleep. Some people use self-help techniques like meditation and breathing exercises; and others join support groups where they share their experiences and find support.
Life is difficult for people with anxiety disorders, but they can live happy and productive lives if they have the understanding and support of the community.
This column provides a brief overview of anxiety disorders. Contact your local doctor or mental health provider for more information or support. You can also contact the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) on tel. 011 234 4837 or visit them online at www.sadag.org.
- Nathan Ferreira is a practitioner in inclusive education and a proponent of inclusive communities. disABILITIES is a monthly column. firstname.lastname@example.org