Causes of anxiety disorders: how they are diagnosed and treated

FEELING ANXIOUS IS PART OF BEING HUMAN. IN FACT, ANXIETY IS IMPORTANT BECAUSE IT PROTECTS US FROM UNTHINKINGLY ENTERING DANGEROUS SITUATIONS. ANXIETY IS PART OF OUR HUMAN SELF-PRESERVATION INSTINCT AND CAN EVEN BE CRUCIAL TO OUR SURVIVAL. However, at a certain point, anxiety tips over into an illness. Here you can find out all about anxiety disorders, what causes them, how they are diagnosed and the treatment options. A person with an anxiety disorder experiences great fear in certain situations, even though that fear is – objectively – unfounded. The anxiety is difficult or even impossible to control. Some people may fear a certain thing more than others, but this does not mean they have an anxiety disorder. It is only considered a disorder if the anxiety is completely unrelated to the situation and disproportionate. It restricts that person’s daily routine, reduces their social contact and weighs heavily on their mind. According to a study by the University of Zurich, one in ten Swiss citizens have an anxiety disorder. Women were found to be more frequently affected than men. This makes it the most commonly occurring mental illness. Many of those affected are ashamed of their anxiety, because they know that it is in fact unfounded. Instead of seeking help, they avoid the sources of their anxiety as much as possible. However, this actually intensifies rather than weakens the disorder.

Categories of anxiety disorders

Anxiety disorders that require treatment are divided into three categories:

A person with a phobia fears certain things or situations, despite being fully aware that this fear is unfounded. Phobia-related disorders can be divided into agoraphobia, social phobia and specific phobia.

Agoraphobes are afraid of not being able to escape in an emergency or not receiving assistance. For this reason, they often avoid large gatherings of people and events and do not like to travel. The anxiety severely restricts their mobility.

An individual’s social phobias manifest when they meet strangers or in situations where they are the focus of attention. They are often associated with fear of criticism and low self-esteem.

People with a specific phobia, on the other hand, are afraid of very specific things or circumstances. This may include spiders, snakes, locked rooms or heights, for example. Phobias are the most common type of anxiety disorder, but only rarely require treatment.

If the anxiety cannot be specified

Unlike phobias, a generalised anxiety disorder relates to a variety of factors. The anxieties are undefined, and no specific source can be identified. Those affected have a constant feeling of tension.

They may worry constantly that something could happen to a family member, even if they are not in any danger. Often, those affected are only able to escape this constant fear for a short time.

Moments of acute panic

If the anxiety manifests suddenly and severely, this is referred to as a panic disorder. It is frequently associated with heart palpitations, sweating or dizziness. It often only lasts a few minutes.

The panic attack peaks quickly, reaching what is described in severe cases as a feeling of mortal fear. It then gradually levels off. The fear of experiencing one of these types of attack often causes the affected person to withdraw from social life. Panic disorders are quite rare, but generally require treatment.

How an anxiety disorder manifests

Anxiety disorders affect both the mind and the body. Often those affected feel that they might faint or even have a heart attack at any moment. This is particularly the case for people with a panic disorder.

The exact manifestation of a panic disorder depends on its form. However, those affected generally have one thing in common. They are afraid of losing control in certain situations and being helpless when faced with the source of their anxiety. This drives them to do everything they can to distance themselves from it.

Panic disorders and their causes

panic disorders and their causes

Various theories have been proposed to explain what causes anxiety disorders. It is assumed that they are formed as a result of adverse learning processes or internal conflicts. But what exactly does that mean? Often, an anxiety disorder is caused by traumatic experiences, which may even go back to childhood. These experiences may have been either physical or psychological. Examples include:

  • Early death of a parent
  • Sudden loss of familiar social environment
  • Severe illness
  • Emotional or physical abuse

Parenting style may also play a role. Some of those affected, for example, report over-protective or over-cautious behaviour by parents.

Examining the neurobiology of people with anxiety disorders reveals specific features in certain regions of the brain. One of the most noticeable is an overactive amygdala. The role of the amygdala is to decide whether a certain external stimulus is dangerous or beneficial to the body. It shows an increased volume in people with an anxiety disorder.

It is assumed that the autonomic nervous system of patients with anxiety disorders is particularly sensitive. This leads to states of anxiety emerging more quickly and more often. Anxiety disorders have been observed to occur more frequently within some families. This leads scientists to believe that there might also be a genetic component.

How is a panic disorder diagnosed?

It often takes a long time for an anxiety disorder to be diagnosed. The person affected must first become aware of the issue and make the decision to seek professional help. However, merely becoming aware of their issues does not automatically make a person go to a therapist.

Mental illnesses are often associated with shame, leading those affected to put off seeking help as long as possible. Once they have found the courage to seek professional help, the first step is a detailed discussion with the specialist. The specialist will ask about when the anxiety occurs, its severity, and when they started experiencing it, amongst other things.

They will also find out if the anxiety appears suddenly or gradually and if it is associated with physical symptoms. Some of these symptoms may also suggest specific illnesses, such as circulatory, pulmonary or thyroid diseases. These must be ruled out as part of the diagnostic process. A GP will also need to conduct a thorough examination.

They will also investigate whether the anxiety is actually the main symptom or a side effect. This can the case with depression, for example. To help with this, the patient might be asked to keep an anxiety journal.

This involves noting when the anxiety occurs and how severe it is over a certain period of time. Symptoms that occur in combination with the anxiety should also be recorded. This makes it easier for the therapist to both issue a diagnosis and to then create a personal treatment plan.

Anxiety disorder treatment options

anxiety disorder treatment options

Treatment for anxiety disorders is normally very effective. The earlier the person affected seeks professional help, the greater the chances of success. There are various ways of approaching the problem. A key factor is the type and severity of the anxiety disorder, and the wishes of the patient.

Cognitive behavioural therapy has proven particularly effective. This method is based on the assumption that thoughts, emotions and behaviour are directly interrelated. Anxiety disorders are often associated with negative experiences from the past. When similar situations occur, the thoughts reappear, fear spreads, and the person affected withdraws. Whether this is really necessary or not is a minor consideration.

This is precisely what cognitive behavioural therapy aims to demonstrate to the patient. The goal is to teach them that certain thought patterns lead to corresponding behaviours. Breaking these patterns is essential in order for the patient to overcome the anxiety disorder.

To achieve this, the patient enters a situation that causes them anxiety in their mind, guided by the therapist. They remain there until the fear passes. The purpose of this to help the patient realise that there is no reason for the anxiety. Later, the thought experiment is transferred to reality.

Another treatment option is a psychodynamic approach. Here, it is assumed that the anxiety results from unconscious internal conflict. These conflicts must be uncovered and resolved.

Medications for particularly severe anxiety disorders

In some circumstances, treatment with medication may be considered for patients with anxiety disorders. This is particularly the case if, for example, the anxieties are so severe that the patient simply cannot confront them. Being able to confront the anxieties is essential for treatment to be successful.

In this case, the choice is often made to prescribe antidepressants. However, these take at least two weeks to reach their full effectiveness. If an immediate result is needed, anxiolytics can be used. However, these can only be used temporarily because there is a risk of addiction.

Actions to support the treatment

When your muscles are moved or strained, they create what are called myokines. These are neurotransmitters that can stabilise your mind. This means that being physically active on a regular basis can support the treatment of an anxiety disorder. Plus, exercise acts as a stress-relief valve for many people. It can also have a positive effect on your mental health.

Deliberate relaxation is another important component. After all, anxieties put a strain on your body as well as your mind. Progressive muscle relaxation has proven particularly helpful. The patient consciously tenses every muscle one after another, then releases them. Autogenic training, applied relaxation and other methods can also be used.

How do I identify the point at which anxieties become an illness?

It is normal to have anxieties. The point at which these tip over into a disorder that requires treatment depends on a variety of factors. If you answer yes to one or more of the following questions, you should consider consulting a doctor.

Take control of anxiety disorders with mynd

Mental health should be taken seriously. However, it is often not given the attention it deserves. Your mental wellbeing can even affect your physical health. In a world where everything moves too fast and there is almost no time for stillness, mental strain builds up.

Many people do not want to admit to being affected or fear appearing weak when they bring it up. With mynd you have access to digital assistance. It can help you to deal with all the ups and downs that life throws at you.

Simple, user-friendly, effective and available on the move – mynd is all of these things. This digital solution is based on cognitive behavioural therapy. It is available on a subscription basis or as individual consultations.

You start by answering a few questions to provide an initial overview of your situation. After this, you have your first session with a coach. They will help you to identify the next steps to find the best possible approach for your individual circumstances. Take control of your mental health and choose your coach!

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