Diagnosing and Treating Anxiety

Anxiety disorders rank among the most commonly prescribed mental health conditions. The most prevalent type of anxiety is known as "generalized anxiety disorder," a term which describes a mental health condition characterized by intrusive, overpowering feelings of anxiousness which are disproportionate to the situation at hand. While it is normal to feel anxious or nervous from time to time, people with anxiety disorders suffer with strong bouts of apprehension in situations where there is little or no objective reason to feel anxious. Fortunately, there are many different ways in which anxiety disorders can be treated, but the essential first step is to seek help.

Diagnosing Anxiety

Anxiety is diagnosed according to specific criteria laid out in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV). The DSM-IV identifies the following symptomatic criteria for the diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder:

  • Unusual levels of anxiety or worry, persisting for a period of at least six months
  • An inability to control feelings of anxiety
  • The ongoing presence of anxiety which is not related to another existing mental health condition
  • Sleep disturbances due to worry
  • Irritability
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Muscle tension
  • Fatigue

Types of Anxiety Disorders

Some anxiety disorders are characterized by feelings of nervousness or worry in specific situations, such as social situations. Others involve phobias, or stem from a psychologically or emotionally traumatic incident. These specialized anxiety disorders have slightly different diagnostic criteria and more specific treatment methods. Some examples of these types of anxiety disorders include:

  • Social anxiety disorder
  • Panic disorder
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Agoraphobia

Managing Anxiety

As mentioned, your specific treatment plan will vary, depending on the type of anxiety disorder you are dealing with. However, there are some common elements seen in the management of anxiety, which tend to provide effective symptom relief and give patients the ability to gain the upper hand on their symptoms.

Some of the mainstays in the treatment of anxiety disorder include:

  • Anxiolytics. Anxiolytics are drugs which create a sense of calmness and relaxation. They are often used as a front-line treatment for anxiety disorders, with a class of drugs known as benzodiazepines being among the most commonly prescribed anxiolytic drugs. However, they are generally used as a short-term solution for bringing severe symptoms under control, as they can cause problems when used at high dosages for extended periods of time.
  • Other medications. Your doctor may choose to supplement or replace anxiolytics with any number of other drugs which have proven effective in the treatment of anxiety. Certain types of antidepressants can greatly reduce anxiety symptoms, and another drug known as buspirone is also a very effective anxiety treatment.
  • Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). One of the keys to the successful management of anxiety is to recognize cues that trigger anxiety and apply specific strategies to alter your psychological response to those triggers. This approach to treatment is known as cognitive behavior therapy, and it is one of the fundamental aspects of anxiety management.
  • Exposure therapy. With phobias and in post-traumatic stress disorder, patients tend to experience anxiety symptoms when confronted with a specific external trigger. Exposure therapy helps patients overcome the panic response when confronted with that trigger by gradually exposing them to it over a period of time. In most cases, the patient's panic response diminishes through controlled exposure to the trigger, which helps them keep their condition under control.

Your doctor may also recommend lifestyle alterations to help keep your symptoms under control. Common suggestions include:

  • Getting more exercise
  • Sleeping 7 to 8 hours each night
  • Reducing or eliminating alcohol intake
  • Reducing or eliminating caffeine intake
  • Avoiding street drugs
  • Managing your weight and diet

Anxiety can seem overwhelming, but it can be brought under control with the help of a doctor or therapist. If you're suffering with anxiety symptoms that match the DSM-IV criteria, speak to your family physician or a mental health professional in your community network.