Is It Stress or Clinical Anxiety Disorder?
I recently came across an article in The Mighty called, “37 Memes That Might Make You Laugh If You Live with ‘High-Functioning’ Anxiety,” and let me tell you, I did laugh and immediately forwarded the articles to three of my friends that I knew would relate. While hilarious, the article also highlights the reality of anxiety and, specifically, that anxiety isn’t just everyday stress.
What is stress?
While there is a common misconception that anxiety and stress are the same thing, this is not the case. Stress is a reaction to an external situation that is primarily a physical response—sweating, increased heart rate, and so on. When stressed, your body may perceive that there is a threat, and thus work to protect itself by releasing adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine, causing a myriad of physical symptoms.
Imagine this: you just had a meeting with your boss where you were scolded for not living up to expectations on a major project. Your palms start to sweat, your heart rate increases, and you may even feel the beginning of a headache coming on. While this post-meeting stress may be uncomfortable, it can often be a good thing as it can motivate us to make changes or push us to reach our goals. You may decide to make a list of steps to take to improve your performance at work, for example. And, if you do take the steps necessary to rectify your mistake, stress will disappear, leaving you feeling like your normal self.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety, on the other hand, is a clinical disorder. With anxiety, worries don’t necessarily have a specific trigger and it causes you to alter you day-to-day life. When anxiety is present, individuals may do anything to stop the feeling, including changing their plans or the way they live their lives. One common anxiety disorder is social anxiety, which is anxiety around social events or crowded gatherings. If you suffer from social anxiety, you may have an experience similar to this: you are getting ready for a party you have been looking forward to and all of sudden, you start to feel nervous. You may start to sweat and feel nauseous. You may get lightheaded and dizzy. By the time your anxiety starts to increase, you are most likely looking for excuses to cancel—your dog is sick, you forgot you double-booked, a family member suddenly needs you. And, after all of this, if you choose to cancel, you probably feel some relief. It’s also likely that you probably aren’t sure why you experienced such sudden, extreme anxiety.
While some anxiety has a direct cause, oftentimes diagnosed anxiety has no direct stressor and can be broken down into the following categories:
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder: undue and excessive tension and upset, even when nothing was done to cause anxiety
- Social Anxiety Disorder: apprehension and fear around social events
- Panic Disorders: severe feelings of fear that occur frequently with a sudden onset
- Phobias: fear of a specific situation or thing (i.e., spiders).
In opposition to stress, anxiety symptoms are longer-lasting and more intense. Effects of anxiety may include:
- Physical: shortness of breath, chest pain, headaches, sweating, muscle weakness
- Emotional: agitation, discomfort, tension, feelings of depression, and isolation
- Behavioral: avoidance, nervous ticks, withdrawal
- Mental: obsessive thoughts, inability to focus on things other than anxiety feelings
Anxiety on the rise
Despite “manageable stress” being important in our day-to-day lives, anxiety is anything but. Anxiety is a real and serious medical condition and is “…the most common and pervasive mental disorder in the United States” (“Understand the Facts,” n.d.). In fact, over the past 10 years, the rate of anxiety has increased each year, particularly in teens and young adults. Over the last decade, anxiety has become the most common reason college students seek counseling services, rising above depression, with approximately 62% of college students reporting overwhelming anxiety (Reilly, 2018).
While there is no single answer as to why anxiety rates are skyrocketing, studies have shown that possible reasons could include an increase in school workload, a lack of safe neighborhoods, social media, growing up in abusive families, or witnessing violence from a young age. (Denizet-Lewis, 2017). The most notable societal changes that may increase anxiety affect youth, teens, and young adults. With new social media expectations, rising college tuition, and technology that has been advancing at a rapid pace, young adults are faced with the need to adapt quickly and easily. These individuals are expected to put out a public persona across various social channels that highlights the best of their lives while maintaining a personal life that is far from perfect. An individual’s social media presence contrasted with the reality of their day-to-day life may cause them to feel pressured to maintain a life that is in alignment with what they are projecting online. This disconnect can cause negative thought patterns, anxiety, and intrusive thoughts about perfectionism. With this increasing demand on individuals to provide for both themselves and others in an ever-changing society, it’s no wonder that reports of anxiety disorders are higher than ever before.
Anxiety and co-occurring disorders
When anxiety co-occurs with other medical conditions, such as eating disorders, depression, or alcoholism, it can result in serious medical consequences. Symptoms of anxiety and co-occurring disorders may include kidney failure, IBS, and other cardiovascular irregularities (Barbarich et al., 2004). Specifically, in those suffering from both anxiety and eating disorders, an exorbitant amount of strain is placed on the body, altering how it functions. Gastrointestinal issues, which are known as prevalent side effects of eating disorders, are worsened during times of anxiety and can be manifested as nausea, diarrhea, or an upset stomach. In addition to physical symptoms, anxiety may prevent individuals suffering from eating disorders from getting treatment early on. And, as we know, the longer eating disorder behaviors are present, the more severe the illness becomes.
Due to a potential delay in treatment because of anxiety, individuals with co-occurring disorders often find themselves suffering from stomach problems, weight loss, hair loss, etc. Those with anxiety and substance use disorders may find themselves using more substances in order to cope with anxious feelings. People with eating disorders may engage in disordered eating more frequently to regain a sense of control. Due to the severity of these illnesses, it’s important for people struggling with anxiety and other mental health illnesses to make an appointment to get evaluated by a psychologist, doctor, or therapist. The earlier that individuals with co-occurring disorders get treatment, the more likely they are to recover and return to daily life.
If anxiety is manageable, homeopathic remedies may be recommended as part of treatment. There is evidence that meditation, exercise, and a healthy diet are effective in treating mild to moderate anxiety. However, these changes must be consistent—meditating daily and engaging in light exercise (yoga, for example) 3-5 times a week. In cases of mild anxiety, social changes may be made as well, including staying connected to friends, talking openly about your anxiety, and letting others know when you are experiencing symptoms. Staying connected to a community can alleviate anxiety and promote a sense of independence and peace.
However, if anxiety is interfering in an individual’s day-to-day life, an evaluation by a medical professional is recommended. Typically, a form of ongoing therapy or psychotherapy is useful for individuals struggling with moderate to severe anxiety. In addition to therapy, if anxiety feels unmanageable and severely limits what a person is able to do, medication may be prescribed in tandem with therapy. It is important to note that if someone in your life feels suicidal, you should immediately call 911 and schedule an appointment with a professional who can adequately treat their condition.
Anxiety and Eating Disorders are Treatable
If you or a loved one are suffering from anxiety, reach out to your doctor. If you or a loved one are suffering from anxiety along with an eating disorder, specialized treatment is recommended and we can help. Give us a call at 1-888-364-5977.
Denizet-Lewis, B. (2017, October 11). Why Are More American Teenagers Than Ever Suffering From Severe Anxiety? Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/11/magazine/why-are-more-american-teenagers-than-ever-suffering-from-severe-anxiety.html
Kaye, W. H., Bulik, C. M., Thornton, L., Barbarich, N., & Masters, K. (2004). Comorbidity of Anxiety Disorders With Anorexia and Bulimia Nervosa. The American Journal of Psychiatry,161(12), 2215-2221. Retrieved May 31, 2018.
Komaroth, A. (n.d.). The gut-brain connection – Harvard Health. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/diseases-and-conditions/the-gut-brain-connection Reilly, K. (2018, March 19). Anxiety and Depression: More College Students Seeking Help. Retrieved from http://time.com/5190291/anxiety-depression-college-university-students/Virzi, J. (2017, December 15).
37 Memes That Might Make You Laugh If You Live With ‘High-Functioning’ Anxiety. Retrieved May 31, 2018, from https://themighty.com/2017/12/high-functioning-anxiety-memes/Anxiety disorders. (2018, May 04). Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/anxiety/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20350967
What Is Stress? (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.stress.org.uk/what-is-stress/
Understand the Facts. (n.d.). Retrieved May 31, 2018, from https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety#