Posted by: counselorcarmella | July 12, 2011

More Than Worried: Anxiety Disorders

Trouble sleeping, a nervous stomach, and  problems concentrating are feelings  most of us experience when we’re worried. Anxiety, when it  is not too  severe,  can  motivate us to  seek solutions to problems and to do our best.  It can  alert us to danger and help keep us safe.


For many people, though, anxiety is  a much bigger problem. It doesn’t just cause  discomfort; it disrupts daily life.     Eighteen percent of the population, or forty million Americans,  struggle with anxiety disorders. Anxiety disorders are the most commonly diagnosed mental health conditions.  Children and adolescents can  experience anxiety disorders. They are also common  in the elderly. Young adults and those in mid-life are not immune. People from  any and all backgrounds can experience  anxiety disorders, including those  who are Christians and actively involved in  their church.


There are various types of anxiety disorders. Most people have heard of obsessive-compulsive disorder, which involves  someone  repeating behaviors or   getting stuck on certain thoughts or ideas. We are hearing a lot  lately about post traumatic stress disorder due to  military personnel returning from deployments experiencing  nightmares, flashbacks, and other  reactions to  being in a dangerous environment.   Panic disorder involves sudden attacks of intense fear that lead some people to think they’re having a heart attack. With social phobia, people are  afraid of  public speaking, being in crowds, or   making telephone calls.  Specific phobias  involve avoiding certain things, such as elevators, out of intense fear. Some people become too anxious to leave their homes. This is called agoraphobia.


 Generalized anxiety disorder, or GAD,  is   perhaps the most common anxiety disorder. According to the Anxiety Disorders Association of America, GAD is characterized by persistent, excessive, and unrealistic or exaggerated worry about everyday things. People with GAD have brains telling them to expect the worst in any  situation.  They are overly concerned about money, health, family, work, or other issues. They experience racing thoughts that include lots of “What if?” and worst case scenario situations. They  feel unable to stop or control their worrying and are often in an internal   state of “fight or flight.” They feel overwhelmed and  have trouble making decisions.  Symptoms of GAD also include fatigue, restlessness or feeling edgy, difficulty concentrating, irritability, and problems eating or sleeping. Physical symptoms include  tense muscles,  stomach problems, or headaches.


People with anxiety disorders feel different from others because they can’t relax.  They  worry that they’ll go crazy, or lose control of themselves in a public place,  or that  something terrible is going to happen. They are  hypervigilant and unable to let their guard down because  they’re braced for “something”  bad to happen.  They feel ruled by their worries and often feel very alone and as though no one else could possibly understand what’s going on with them on the inside.


 While  situational and  environmental   influences are important, a true anxiety disorder also involves biological factors related to brain chemicals. This is why telling an anxious person  to “just give your cares to God” or “just stop worrying and  calm down” are not always helpful. While prayer and meditating on Scriptures that emphasize God’s care and  love are important,  there are times when these are not the only   kinds of help  a person needs. Many people  who are experiencing an anxiety disorder are also struggling with depression, substance abuse issues, or other mental  health problems.


The good news is that anxiety disorders are treatable. The best approach is usually to combine  work with a licensed counselor with an appropriate course of medications. Counseling helps the person to learn  different ways of thinking and behaviors that will help them  manage anxiety symptoms. Counselors often teach anxious  clients about exercises such as  progressive muscle relaxation,  deep breathing, and  guided imagery. These  exercises help  anxious people  to  sit quietly, focus on their bodies and  minds, and relax physically and mentally. Journaling can help an anxious person get their worries out of their own head. Prayer and   releasing concerns back to God are also helpful, as is talking worries over with someone  trustworthy. It is important to listen, offer support and distraction,  pray with and for that person, and  help them make contact with a Professional Counselor or other  mental health professional for  an evaluation.


Counselors also teach clients how to challenge their anxious thoughts. Questions like, “How do I know that will happen?” or “How else can I think about this?” are often helpful.  Helping clients understand that   losing sleep and getting physically ill  due to  worrying  won’t prevent the feared event is  also an important job of the counselor. Counselors also encourage distraction activities such as playing with a pet,  reading, sewing or tinkering with tools to have something to keep hands busy,  counting change, thinking of things to be thankful for that start with each letter of the alphabet, or watching something funny on TV.  Regular exercise is very important to manage feelings of being keyed up and  restless. Avoiding too much caffeine is also important, as it can increase anxiety.   


Medications help regulate the chemicals in the brain that  are off balance. GPs and family doctors are often  comfortable prescribing appropriate medications. The same medications used to treat depression are  often used to treat anxiety.  Other medications may be used as well. Counseling and medications won’t  make anxiety go away completely, but they can help it to be  much less severe and easier to manage.  




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