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Anxiety disorders involve intense feelings of fear, anxiety, worry or apprehension often associated with specific situations, events or objects. The physical symptoms that accompany these feelings include heart palpitations, trembling, dry mouth, dizziness, nausea and diarrhea.

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Anxiety, nervousness, fear - everyone experiences these feelings at one time or another. They are normal emotions that can be appropriate and even beneficial under certain circumstances. However, more than 20 million Americans suffer from anxiety disorders - a collection of psychological problems characterized by unnatural and unhealthy anxiety or irrational fears. The emotions and fears surrounding these disorders can dominate an individual's life, interfering with the ability to work, socialize or maintain relationships with people.

Fortunately, anxiety disorders are highly treatable. Experts estimate that up to 90 percent of people who suffer from anxiety disorders can be helped through medication, behavior modification, or psychotherapy.

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If anxiety becomes pronounced, it can express itself in various ways. For example, you may have trouble falling asleep; dwell on a particular situation and find it difficult to think of something else; feel tense, restless, jittery, dizzy and sweaty; have trouble concentrating; overeat or lose your appetite; be overly vigilant and startle easily; have a feeling of impending disaster, as if "something bad is going to happen;" or are depressed (anxiety can mask depression).

Types Of Anxiety Disorders

The most common anxiety disorders are phobias, generalized anxiety, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Phobias are the most common form of anxiety. They are characterized by an intense, almost paralyzing fear centering on a specific situation or object. Virtually everyone can think of something that evokes a visceral response akin to fear, but phobias go far beyond what is normal or rational.

Generalized Anxiety may involve specific situations, issues or objects. Many with this problem weave a web of excessive worry that encompasses a wide range of everyday situations, many of them quite trivial. In generalized anxiety, the fears are more pervasive and less easy to plan around than are those associated with phobias.

Panic Disorder. Panic attacks are characterized by a sudden rush of fear, usually accompanied by a pounding heart, shortness of breath, a choking or suffocating sensation or other physical symptoms. They often occur in response to a stressful situation or during a period of chronic emotional stress. Attacks can occur in the most familiar and seemingly non-threatening settings, at the grocery store, in church or while driving along a familiar road. Suffers often describe a feeling of unreality during the attack.

Someone experiencing a panic attack may feel on the verge of losing control, going crazy or even dying; he or she may suddenly start screaming, run away or otherwise create a scene. In most instances, the feelings pass within a few moments. Proper diagnosis is critical. Many sufferers of panic disorder are convinced they have heart disease because of the pounding heart and choking sensations. They may drift from one doctor to another, being reassured that their hearts are fine but never getting to the root of their problem.

Obsessive-Compulsive. Individuals with obsessive-compulsive disorder are plagued by uncertainty, manifested in obsessions (persistent unwanted thoughts or impulses) and compulsions (senseless rituals performed either to prevent or bring about a future event).

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder has gained recognition in recent years because of its emergence in many Vietnam veterans. Victims tend to relive over and over a particularly painful or stressful situation and often have nightmares about the event. Rape, beatings, incest, sexual abuse and catastrophic accidents can also trigger the disorder.

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Treatment of anxiety disorders varies, depending on the nature of the disorder and individual patient characteristics. Many patients respond well to behavioral therapy. In this approach, a patient is asked to gradually confront the source of the fear. A person with panic attacks might be asked to return several times to a place associated with an attack. With the help of a therapist or supportive friend, the patient learns to "ride out" an attack rather than run from it.

Traditional psychotherapy, talking out problems with a therapist, can be beneficial to many patients. A newer approach, called cognitive therapy, can help patients identify the distorted thoughts and misconceptions that contribute to the anxiety.

Several types of medications are useful in treating anxiety disorders and are usually used in conjunction with other forms of therapy. These include anti-depressants (such as imipramine), anxiety-reducing drugs (such as alprazolam and buspirone) and cardiac drugs, known as beta-blockers.

The important thing to remember is that effective treatments are available for anxiety disorders, and no one should feel the need to retreat from life because of overwhelming anxiety. The biggest step, and often the toughest, is to ask for help.

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Questions to Ask Your Doctor

What type of anxiety disorder is it?

Will you be prescribing a medication? What are the side effects?

How long will it take before the medicine helps?

Should a psychologist or psychiatrist be consulted?

If behavioral therapy is recommended, what will it involve?

Are there any support groups or therapy to help deal with the disorder?

Will an exercise program help relieve the anxiety of the disorder?

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