The disorders at a glance
| ||Generalized anxiety disorder||Panic disorder||Obsessive-compulsive disorder|
|Symptoms||Extreme and disproportionate daily anxiety lasting six months or longer. Three or more of these symptoms are present: restlessness, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, irritability, disturbed sleep||Repeated and sudden attacks of terror accompanied by at least four of these symptoms: shortness of breath, dizziness, increased heart rate, trembling, feeling of unreality, fear of dying, sweating, numbness, choking and chest pain||Recurrent, uncontrollable ideas or impulses that are repugnant and that trigger rituals aimed at preventing or dispelling the obsessions. OCD is diagnosed when such activities take up at least an hour a day|
|Medical help||benzodiazepines (Librium, Valium and Xanax, for example), buspirone||antidepressants, benzodiazepines (Librium, Valium and Xanax, for example)||clompiramine, flurextine, fluvoxamine, paroxetine, sertraline, antidepressants|
|Psychological/behavioral help||psychotherapy aimed at resolving inner conflicts; relaxation techniques||exposure therapy, in which contact is maintained with the object or situation that triggers a panic attack; psychotherapy||exposure and response-prevention therapy, in which contact is maintained with the OCD trigger without the usual ritual; psychotherapy|
Remember how you used to feel right before an exam? Your mouth might have been dry, your heart racing and your stomach churning. And if you had insomnia the night before, you may have been battling a sleep deficit to boot. Imagine feeling that way, or worse, all the time. For people with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), extreme, unwarranted worry about everyday problems brings on nausea, irritability, palpitations, dizziness and a constant sense of doom in the absence of any actual threat.
Now imagine feeling as if you can’t get enough oxygen and that your heart is about to leap out of your chest. Your palms are sweating, you’re shivering and you feel out of touch with reality. It’s so bad you think you’re dying. Although the sensation soon passes, you’ll do whatever it takes to avoid another episode. So if you had a panic attack in an elevator, for example, you might try never to ride in one again. But even that precaution doesn’t allay your fears about what else might trigger an attack.
Did you double-check the lights and the locks the last time you went on vacation? While that’s not unusual, double- or triple-checking everything every time you go out is. The challenge for people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is to break free of persistent thoughts and behaviors. Compulsive hand washing, hoarding objects and following senseless rituals, such as counting the number of words on a line, are some of the ways OCD manifests itself.
A crippling effect
Normally, ordinary worry and anxiety stimulate us to action, motivating us to prepare for a job interview or call 911 in an emergency. But for people with GAD, panic disorder or OCD, anxiety and dread freeze them in their tracks and erode their self-confidence.
Who is susceptible?
Women are twice as likely as men to develop anxiety disorders. Although experts aren’t sure what causes the disorders, they suspect that genes play a role. Panic disorder, for example, seems to run in families. But emotional trauma contributes to anxiety disorders, too. Pregnancy is a common trigger, but any stressful situation, such as a divorce, a death, a job loss or even a promotion, can precipitate an anxiety disorder.
Once an anxiety disorder has been diagnosed—physical problems, such as thyroid disorders or heart disease, and other psychiatric disorders, such as depression, must be ruled out before a diagnosis can be made—the outlook is bright. Often a combination of psychotherapy, behavioral/cognitive therapy and medication can help people resume fulfilling lives. Exposure therapy, which forces people to confront the feared situations or objects, is particularly effective for those with panic disorder or OCD.
Besides seeking professional help, those with anxiety disorder can regain control by…
- eating three well-balanced meals and two healthful snacks a day.
- getting regular exercise.
- avoiding alcohol, tobacco, drugs and caffeine.
- practicing relaxation techniques such as deep breathing and yoga.
- reducing daily stressors. That means cutting out unnecessary tasks and asking others for help.
- sharing their fears and worries with a trusted friend. Opening up to others can be an effective way to relieve anxiety.
- identifying situations that trigger fear and anxiety and pinpointing what it is about them that causes such feelings.
If you suspect you have an anxiety disorder, talk to your healthcare provider. There’s no reason to let worry, fear and panic prevent you from enjoying life.