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Anxiety Disorders In Women

We expect anxiety in children around the country tonight night after stories of spooks and goblins, with costumes to match and scary lit pumpkins shining from the shadows.  But for nearly 19 million of grown adults, anxiety is a constant problem.  When people generally think of a common mental illness in women with potentially serious consequences, they think of depression.  But anxiety disorders are even more common than depressive disorders; in fact, anxiety disorders are the most common psychiatric illnesses affecting both children and adults.  Even more surprising is that having an anxiety disorder can also precipitate suicidal thoughts, feelings, attempts and even completed suicides.  Those who are affected should seek medical care and their loved ones should encourage and support them.

Anxiety disorders are at least twice as common in women as they are in men.  Their cause is usually unknown, but risk factors include genetics, brain chemistry, personality, and life events.  There are basically six different categories: generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), panic disorder, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), social phobias, specific phobias.

  • GAD is characterized by one or more excessive or unrealistic worries that last six months or more.  Additional symptoms may include trembling, muscle aches, insomnia, abdominal upsets, dizziness, and irritability.

  • OCD is typified by the television character "Monk":  individuals with OCD have persistent, recurring thoughts or obsessions representing exaggerated anxiety or fears.  These obsessions may lead to performing involuntary, repeated rituals or routines called compulsions.

  • Panic disorder is characterized by severe panic attacks for no apparent reason.  These may resemble symptoms of a heart attack with palpitations, chest pain, sweating, trembling, tingling sensations, feeling of choking, or of not being able to breath.  Other hallmarks include a fear of dying, fear of losing control, and feelings of unreality.  Panic disorder often occurs with agoraphobia, in which people become afraid of having a panic attack in a public place or one from which escape would be difficult; as a result, they avoid these places.

  • PTSD classically follows a personal or virtual exposure (i.e. witnessing it on television) to a traumatic event such as a sexual or physical assault, witnessing a death, the unexpected death of a loved one, or experiencing a disaster (e.g. witnessing the attacks of 9/11/01). The three main associated symptoms associated are "reliving" the trauma such as in flashbacks and nightmares; avoidance behaviors such as avoiding places related to the trauma; and emotional numbing or detachment from others.  In addition, physical symptoms such difficulty sleeping, irritability or poor concentration are common.

  • Social Anxiety Disorder or Social Phobias are characterized by extreme anxiety about being judged by others or behaving in a way that might cause embarrassment or ridicule; this intense anxiety may lead to avoidance behaviors. Associated physical symptoms may include palpitations, faintness, blushing and profuse sweating.

  • Specific Phobias are characterized by an intense, uncontrollable fear reaction to a specific object or situation (such as spiders, dogs, flying, or heights) which is recognized as being irrational and excessive by the person suffering from it. This inordinate fear or phobia can lead to avoiding common, everyday situations or activities.

The good news is that when diagnosed properly, anxiety disorders are generally treatable, with medicine and psychotherapy.  The bad news is that only about one-third of those suffering from an anxiety disorder receive treatment.

For more information about depression or other mental health issues, click here.

Created: 10/31/2003  -  Donnica Moore, M.D.

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