Life’s daily demands can sometimes be overwhelming, quickly ratcheting up our anxiety levels. Worries about everyday stressors, like finances, parenting issues, work-related problems, and family strife can leave us feeling perpetually anxious. Anxiety is the most common type of mental health disorder, with 40 million U.S. adults struggling with an anxiety disorder, according to the National institute of Mental Health.
One severe form of anxiety is manifested in panic attacks or a panic disorder. A panic attack comes on for no known reason, when suddenly you are overcome with an intense version of the “fight or flight” response. These attacks leave you breathless, with a racing heart, nausea, dizziness, shaking, and basically frozen in fear.
The fight or flight response, or the acute stress response, is an innate physiological reaction to a perceived threat. The body responds by unleashing a flood of adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine into the bloodstream, which tells a human to either fight for their life or to run for their life. To some extent, this biological function is present with all anxiety disorders, not just panic disorder.
When the symptoms of anxiety intensify over time, or become so constant that they cause impairment in functioning, it is appropriate to seek psychiatric help. A psychiatrist can prescribe medications for severe anxiety that can mitigate the symptoms and help manage the condition. The psychiatrist can also prescribe psychotherapy, where the individual can learn new healthy thought and behavior patterns. These two interventions, when combined with holistic approaches, can be very effective in managing anxiety symptoms and improving the quality of life.
What is Panic Disorder?
Severe anxiety and panic attacks originate when the fear center of the brain, the amygdala, overreacts to some stimulus, causing stress hormones to spike. The sudden surge of adrenaline causes many of the physical symptoms associated with a panic attack. The panic attack usually lasts 10-15 minutes, after which the body will slowly return to normal. Panic disorder can be a frightening and debilitating manifestation of anxiety.
Panic disorder is in the anxiety spectrum of mental health disorders, and is fairly uncommon, with an estimated 2-3% of Americans suffering from it, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. About twice as many women than men experience panic disorder.
Panic attacks can come out of nowhere, and, without warning, involve symptoms that are very similar to those of a heart attack. The symptoms are so upsetting that, over time, people with panic disorder become prisoners of the disorder, choosing to isolate themselves in hopes of avoiding a future attack.
It is difficult to manage panic disorder because it is so unpredictable and the attacks so random. In some cases there is no obvious cause for the panic attack, but in others it is a direct result of anticipating an anxiety-provoking situation such as public speaking. Although it may feel like you will die while in the panic attack, they are not life threatening.
Other Types of Anxiety Disorders
In addition to panic disorder, which is the most severe type of anxiety, there are other kinds of anxiety disorders, each with unique characteristics:
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder. GAD is characterized by irrational feelings of worry, fear, and dread that are out of proportion to the situation at hand. Symptoms include:
- Excessive worry
- Difficulty relaxing
- Muscle tension
- Muscle aches
- Trouble concentrating
- Inability to let go of worry
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. OCD is characterized by symptoms of intense anxiety related to an irrational fear. In response to the fear, individuals adopt compulsive behaviors to help manage the anxiety that the irrational obsession induces. Examples are:
- Fear of contamination or germs
- Fear of angry, aggressive, or sexual impulses
- An obsessive need for orderliness, cleanliness, or symmetry
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. PTSD is characterized by intense feelings of anxiety that follow experiencing or witnessing a trauma:
- Nightmares or flashbacks
- Traumatic memories
- Avoidance of any situations or people that might trigger the traumatic memories
- Substance abuse
- Social Anxiety Disorder. Social anxiety is caused by a deep fear of being judged, criticized, or publically humiliated:
- Shallow breathing
- Feeling faint or dizzy
- Heart palpitations
- Avoidance of social interaction and events
- Specific Phobia. Phobias pertain to the intense and exaggerated fear of a person, place, thing, or situation. The irrational obsession then leads to compulsive behaviors as the individual tries to minimize the extreme fear that it provokes.
How Anxiety Impacts Our Life
Anxiety disorders have the potential to cause significant impairment in daily functioning. When intense fear consumes someone, it can lead to avoidance and isolating behaviors, which then cause disruption to careers, relationships, and families. Someone who suffers from anxiety may adopt unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as alcohol or drug abuse only leading to further impairment. Anxiety disorder can profoundly impact our lives, beyond the common symptoms of sensitivity to stress.
One of the ways anxiety can disrupt our daily lives is through impaired cognitive functioning. Anxiety and inability to focus, or foggy thinking, appear to be interconnected. As anxiety symptoms escalate, the mind struggles to stay on task. Short-term memory functions are affected by anxiety as well, causing difficulty in remembering tasks or projects that are due, only adding to the work performance challenges. Anxiety can also result in increased fatigue, also impacting work performance and overall functioning.
What Are Medications For Severe Anxiety?
Before treatment for an anxiety disorder is determined, a comprehensive diagnostic evaluation must be completed. This will include a physical examination, an interview, and completion of a psychiatric evaluation or assessment. Because of the different features of the various anxiety disorders, careful attention must be made to create an appropriate treatment plan that addresses those unique features.
When treating anxiety disorders, medications are typically the first line of treatment.
Anxiety is treated with psychotropic drugs, such as antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, or sedatives plus psychotherapy. Those who are prescribed sedatives, or benzodiazepines, will experience nearly instant relief of their symptoms of anxiety. Of this class of drugs, the most popular one is Xanax (alprazolam). Xanax provides a swift relaxing sensation that makes it extremely prone to abuse. In fact, self-medicating anxiety with Xanax has become a serious health problem, as Xanax addiction and dependency can result.
The medications used to treat anxiety include:
- Fluoxetine (Prozac)
- Paroxetine (Paxil)
- Citalopram (Celexa)
- Escitalopram (Lexapro)
- Sertraline (Zoloft)
- Mirtazapine (Remeron)
- Trazadone (Desyrel)
- Phenelzine (Nardil)
- Tranylcypromine (Parnate)
- Venlafaxine (Effexor)
- Amitriptyline (Elavil)
- Beta blockers:
- Propranolol (Inderal)
- Atenolol (Tenormin)
Medications for anxiety are prescribed in tandem with psychotherapies, such as:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy. CBT helps individuals identify irrational thought patterns and shift these to healthy, productive thoughts.
- Psychodynamic therapy. An intensive therapy that examines childhood history of trauma, abuse, neglect, or attachment disorder.
- Exposure therapy. Helps to reduce the impact of the stressful thought or situation.
Holistic Approaches to Relieving Anxiety
Anxiety is also detrimental to our physical health. Chronic stress and worry keeps the stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, at elevated levels. This can lead to increased health risks, such as weight gain, heart disease, digestive issues, and sleep disturbance.
In a cross-sectional study in 2015 out of the College of William and Mary, it was found that eating fermented foods, such as the probiotics found in yogurt and dark chocolate, reduced symptoms of social anxiety. Another study in 2011 from Ohio State University demonstrated the positive impact of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids on reducing anxiety symptoms. Other foods that help reduce symptoms of anxiety include:
Almonds and cashews
Even just a 15-minute walk each day can have abundant stress-reducing properties. The cardiovascular effects of walking boost endorphins, which can help control cortisol levels.
- Relaxation techniques
Learning effective techniques to reduce stress and improve relaxation is essential in managing anxiety. These techniques include:
- Mindfulness. Training yourself to stay in the moment can help improve focus and concentration on the project at hand. When the mind begins to wander, rein it back in and refocus on the present moment.
- Focused breathing. By directing attention to the breathing process it is possible to quickly reduce the effects of anxiety. This can be accomplished through the practice of deep breathing techniques.
- Guided meditation. Guided meditation apps help you go on a vacation in your mind. Guided meditation focuses on mental imagery that fosters a sense of relaxation and wellbeing.
- Aromatherapy. Essential oils are the concentrated substances derived from plants and flowers that have medicinal purposes. Certain essential oils, like lavender, chamomile, and ylang ylang, through aromatherapy—a vapor, topical treatment, or in the bath—can diminish the effects of anxiety.
- Yoga. Yoga combines specific poses and purposeful breathing that culminates in a meditative and relaxed state of being. Practicing yoga can help reduce stress while lowering both blood pressure and heart rate.
Breaking free of the grip of anxiety is possible. There are methods and medications that can offer relief from the excessive worry that holds you prisoner in your own life. When anxiety has become so pronounced that it threatens your quality of life, consider attending an anxiety retreat or enrolling in a residential mental health program.
Mental Health Hope Provides the Helpful Guidance to Help Individuals with Severe Anxiety
Mental Health Hope is an online resource that provides individuals struggling with anxiety free guidance toward treatment options. The specialists at Mental Health Hope can provide information about various types of treatment centers for anxiety disorder, including anxiety recovery retreats or residential mental health programs. If you or a loved one is experiencing a decline in quality of life due to severe anxiety, reach out to Mental Health Hope today at (877) 967-9274.