It's Your Health
This article was produced in collaboration with the Public Health Agency of Canada.
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Anxiety disorders are the most common of all mental health problems. It is estimated that one in 10 Canadians is affected by them. These disorders can be successfully treated so it is important to recognize the difference between being anxious in response to a real event, and an anxiety disorder which produces fear or distress that is out of proportion to the situation.
Everyone feels anxious at certain times. Workplace pressure, planning a big event or writing an exam can cause feelings of wariness, or even fear. While these situations are uncomfortable, they may be more severe for those who suffer from an anxiety disorder.
People who suffer from anxiety disorders have long periods of intense feelings of fear or distress out of proportion to real events. Their brains interpret real or imagined events to be much more risky or dangerous than they really are. Their lives are full of unease and fear, which interferes with their personal and professional relationships.
Anxiety disorders affect children as well as adults. All too often, people mistake these disorders for mental weakness or instability. The social stigma attached to mental illness often prevents those with anxiety disorders from asking for help.
Anxiety disorders affect behavior, thoughts, emotions and physical health. It is believed that a combination of biological factors, brain functions, personal circumstances, combined with social and economic factors, cause anxiety disorders, the same way that heart disease or diabetes are caused by a combination of factors.
People often suffer from more than one anxiety disorder, and those with anxiety disorders often suffer from depression, eating disorders or substance abuse as well. The good news is that anxiety disorders can be successfully treated once they are recognized.
People with this disorder have panic attacks in which they are suddenly terrified, without warning. They may also have:
If you avoid situations that may cause a panic attack, the condition is known as panic disorder with agoraphobia.
Phobias are only considered disorders if they keep the affected person from leading a normal life. For example, people who have a phobia (or fear) of being in places or situations from which escape might be difficult (or embarrassing) may be too fearful to even leave the house. This type of phobia is called agoraphobia.
There are two categories of phobias:
People with a social phobia are intensely fearful of a social situations. Being with people can paralyze them and make them feel unnaturally self-conscious. They're worried about being judged, and are terrified of doing something wrong in front of other people. Because their feelings are so intense, they tend to avoid situations that might trigger their fear. This dramatically limits their ability to lead a normal life or to interact with others.
People with a specific phobia have an overwhelming, irrational fear of a specific environment or object. Examples include fears of flying, bugs, snakes, heights or open spaces. They are unable to control their terror, even though they may recognize that their fears are ungrounded. Exposure to the feared situation causes them extreme anxiety and panic
This is a disorder that is triggered by a victim reliving a terrifying experience in which they were threatened with, or suffered, physical, mental or emotional harm. Survivors of rape, natural disasters, child abuse or war may all develop post-traumatic stress disorder. The most common symptoms are:
People with this disorder suffer from persistent unwanted thoughts (obsessions) and/or behavioral habits (compulsions), which they cannot control. Typical obsessions are:
Compulsions include constant:
With this disorder, people worry excessively about ordinary, everyday situations and events. The condition usually lasts for at least six months. During this time the affected person expects the worst to happen, even when there is no evidence that it will. The physical symptoms may include:
Anxiety disorders can be successfully treated. The most common form of treatment is a combination of drug therapy and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).
Because most anxiety disorders have some biological basis, the most common drugs prescribed are anti-depressants and anti-anxiety drugs.
CBT involves helping people to turn their anxious thoughts and feelings into more rational ones. Sometimes people will benefit from being exposed in a controlled way to the object and situation they fear. Some CBT techniques have been developed to deal with specific disorders. For example, people with panic disorder can benefit from learning new breathing and meditation techniques, which can help them deal with their anxiety.
Support groups and learning more about the disorder can also help a great many people deal with anxiety disorders. Involving family and friends who are also affected by the disorder, can help people recover or learn how to cope with their condition.
The most important first step in treatment is to get a proper diagnosis from a specialist in anxiety disorders. Many people suffer for 10 years or more before getting the right treatment.
If you suspect that you or someone you know suffers from an anxiety disorder, talk to your health care provider. They can recommend you to a specialist in anxiety disorders or direct you to a specialized anxiety disorder clinic. These points may also help you cope.
The Government of Canada is working to help Canadians improve and maintain their mental health, including coping with anxiety disorders. Within its jurisdiction, the Government of Canada works to:
In 2007, the federal government provided funding to establish and support the Mental Health Commission of Canada. Among other goals, the Commission leads in the development of a national mental health strategy and works to reduce the stigma about mental illness.
For more information on anxiety disorders, contact the following:
Health Canada's Mental Health section
The Canadian Mental Health Association
Or contact the local Canadian Mental Health Association in your community, listed in the phone book.
A report on mental illness entitled The Human Face of Mental Health and Illness in Canada was published by the Government of Canada in 2006
For more on deep breathing and muscle relaxation techniques
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Original: July 2009
ęHer Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada, represented by the Minister of Health, 2009