It would seem that our ancestors, by virtue of their survival during more dangerous times, passed on to modern humans the predisposition for worry.
Taken together, anxiety disorders are the leading mental health condition affecting the human species.
According to the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, in any given year, 18 percent of Americans suffer from an anxiety disorder. The risk factors for anxiety include both genetic and environmental variables.
Generalized anxiety disorder is marked by the presence of excessive and persistent worrying. Common symptoms that accompany anxiety are muscular tension, headache, sleep difficulty, tiredness, irritability and difficulty relaxing. It is not unusual for sufferers of anxiety to report feeling keyed up or on edge.
While not uncommon, anxiety becomes a problem when it causes significant suffering or interferes with work, relationships or other social interactions or responsibilities.
It is important to recognize that certain medical conditions can mimic an anxiety disorder, including overactive thyroid. Drugs of abuse, such as amphetamines or cocaine, can also be associated with symptoms of an anxiety disorder.
It is not unusual for anxiety to co-exist with depression or a substance use disorder. Many sufferers of anxiety seek to “self-medicate” their symptoms with alcohol or marijuana. Unfortunately, this can lead to other problems.
Clinical research has shown that cognitive behavioral therapy, a form of psychotherapy, also known as CBT, is effective in the treatment of anxiety, both with and without the use of anxiety medication. In fact, the combination of psychotherapy and medication for generalized anxiety disorder has been found to be more effective than medication alone.
Psychotherapy focuses on the tendency of anxiety sufferers to think and process information in a way that promotes worry. Such individuals tend to overestimate risk and interpret things negatively. They often think of every possible negative outcome when attempting to solve a problem and may resort to catastrophizing. A low tolerance for uncertainty may lead to indecisiveness.
People with anxiety benefit from a better understanding of their own thought processes, especially those leading to unnecessary worry. Recognizing that we all experience negative thoughts and worries to some extent, it is useful to learn strategies to interpret which are logical and which are not.
It is also helpful to become more aware of what thoughts and situations trigger worry and how a person may react and respond to them. Ultimately, the goal is to develop skills that promote a more rational thought process as well as techniques that promote relaxation and a greater sense of well-being.
Given its widespread prevalence, the stigma of mental illness makes no sense, particularly when effective treatments exist that can enhance quality of life for those suffering from common conditions such as generalized anxiety disorder.
Dr. Matthew A. Clark is a board-certified physician in internal medicine and pediatrics practicing at the Ute Mountain Ute Health Center in Towaoc.