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Is Anxiety a Disease: What Scientists Have to Say in 2021

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Anxiety is the most common mental health issue in the United States. Anxiety disorders affect 40 million adults in the U.S. each year. Not only is it the most common mental health issue, but it’s also one of the most common health problems in general. With anxiety affecting so many people, it’s important to understand its nature, what causes it, and how it can be treated. Is anxiety just in your head, or is it a disease that can get in the way of you living your life?

What Is Anxiety?


Anxiety isn’t just one kind of mental health disorder; it’s actually a category of mental disorders that includes several different diagnoses. When people mention they have anxiety, they may mean they have a generalized anxiety disorder or social anxiety disorder. However, there are several other mental health problems that fall under the category of anxiety disorders, including obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), panic disorders, specific phobias, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

High levels of stress characterize anxiety. You may feel nervous, irritable, scared, or even panicked. It can also cause physical symptoms like an increased heart rate, sweating, and trembling. Everyone feels stress from time to time. In fact, it’s an important function of your brain. 

Stress can increase your alertness, reaction time, and readiness to respond to danger. You may feel it before you have to speak in public or before a big test. After the event that’s causing your stress, those uncomfortable feelings will fade. Anxiety disorders aren’t the same thing as this natural feeling of stress, although it may be related to this function of your brain. 

Generalized anxiety may not be caused by a specific event like public speaking. It may come on without warning, causing racing thoughts, a sense of dread, or even a feeling of impending doom. It may also take longer to go away, and it may come and go on a daily basis. Other anxiety disorders like phobias and PTSD may have more specific triggers, but they may occur at inappropriate times or cause very high stress levels. 

Anxiety can get worse over time, causing sleep problems, nightmares, chest pains, and a lowered quality of life. Though it’s a very common health issue, anxiety disorders are treatable.

How Is Anxiety Diagnosed?


Like diseases that affect your physical body, anxiety can be officially diagnosed by a medical or clinical professional. Professionals may use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) to help find the right diagnosis considering your symptoms. The DSM is a tool that outlines some of the common symptoms and criteria for mental health problems. 

Generalized anxiety disorder is the most common anxiety-related mental health issue in the United States. The DSM’s criteria characterize it by the following:

  • Excessive anxiety and worry. This is worry that exceeds what is typical for the average person’s levels of stress.
  • Apprehensive expectation. This could be worrying about the future or fearing negative outcomes of future events before they even happen.
  • Symptoms occur for six months. The DSM specifies that an anxiety disorder will cause these symptoms in more days than not for at least six months. 
  • Worry is difficult to control. Your thoughts may be dominated by worry that’s challenging to overcome. It may make it difficult to focus on other tasks. Even when you know there’s no immediate reason to worry, your anxiety persists. 
  • You have three or more of six symptoms. The symptoms include feeling on edge or restless, being easily fatigued, difficulty concentrating, irritability, muscle tension, sleep disturbance.
  • Causes clinically significant impairment. This is what separates normal mental stress and disorders. If it gets in the way of you living your life by making your work, relationships, and day-to-day life more difficult, it could be a disorder.
  • It’s not caused by other disorders. For you to be diagnosed with GAD, your symptoms can’t be better explained by other issues like other mental health problems, biological disease or disorders, or drugs.

When you’re seeking a mental health diagnosis, it’s important to work with your doctors and clinicians closely. They can only go by the symptoms you talk to them about, so leaving something out may lead to an inaccurate diagnosis. You may also learn more about your mental health as time passes and feel like your symptoms don’t line up with a diagnosis. If so, let your doctor or therapist know, and you may find a better diagnosis. 

disease-anxiety

Is Anxiety a Disease?

As a mental illness, does anxiety qualify as a disease. For a while, the nature of mental health problems was debated, but the modern consensus is that mental health issues are health conditions, just like diseases that affect your body. A disease is generally defined as a problem that affects the normal structure or function of an organism. While mental health problems may not affect your body’s structure in obvious ways, it does affect functioning. 

Anxiety affects your brain in a way that can hinder sleep, focus, rest and relaxation, and even your physical health. Anxiety can cause sensations of physical pain and discomfort like nausea, chest pains, and heart palpitations. If left untreated, anxiety can lead to problems with your physical health, relationships, employment, finances, and other areas of life. 

Anxiety isn’t just a product of negative thinking, and it may be hard to shake an anxiety disorder on your own. It’s thought that there are many factors in what causes an anxiety disorder, including genetics, environmental, and developmental causes. Many diseases that affect your body have similar roots in genetics and environmental issues. For instance, if you are prone to back pain and injuries, it can be linked to genetics, poor posture, and injuries during development. 

Since anxiety is linked to genetic factors, it means that your biology can be a cause of anxiety. Your genes, the structure of your brain, and other physical issues may contribute to your susceptibility to anxiety disorders. 

Can Anxiety Be Cured?

A cure is a remedy that permanently stops or reverses a disease, like the way penicillin can eliminate certain bacterial infections. However, there are no known cures for anxiety disorders. Since anxiety may be part of your genetic code, it can’t be completely cured, even with medications and therapy. 

However, that doesn’t mean you will have to live with the disorder getting in the way of your life for the rest of your life. In many cases, anxiety comes from your ability to cope with stress and triggers. Learning more effective coping mechanisms can help you manage your symptoms in a way that keeps them under control. 

Anxiety is very treatable with both medications and therapy. It’s possible for you to learn to manage your anxiety symptoms effectively enough that they are no longer a major issue in your life. Some people wrestle with anxiety as it comes and goes from time to time, but through treatment, their symptoms become manageable and milder than they would be without treatment. In some cases, anxiety is a matter of chemical imbalance that can be corrected with the short-term therapeutic use of certain medications. 

It’s possible for anxiety symptoms to come and go on their own, especially if they’re associated with a particular event or a period of high stress in your life. However, if they last long enough to qualify as anxiety disorder, it’s important to seek help to address anxiety before it gets worse. 

How Is Anxiety Treated?

The treatment of anxiety disorders also points to its nature as a disease. Anxiety has been shown to respond to treatment of both pharmacotherapies and psychotherapies. There are evidence-based treatment approaches that can improve the lives of patients with anxiety problems.

According to a 2017 paper, an approach to anxiety treatment called cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is the psychotherapy with the most evidence of success. CBT was originally developed to treat alcohol use disorders, but it’s become one of the most widely used behavioral therapies in treating many different mental health issues. CBT involves a process of learning to identify triggers and your response to high-risk situations. 

You’ll also develop more effective coping strategies. CBT is centered around the idea that psychological issues are partly caused by unhelpful thinking or behavioral patterns that you can learn to adjust, leading to better coping. It’s also designed to increase your self-efficacy, which is your belief in your own ability to overcome challenges. Self-efficacy not only increases your self-image but also prevents you from feeling overwhelmed by challenges you may face in your life. 

Anxiety disorders may also be treated with medications. The first-line drugs that are used to address generalized anxiety and other anxiety disorders are anti-depressants. Though selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) are often used to treat depression, they can also be effective in treating anxiety. Serotonin is important in regulating your mood. 

A low mood can not only make you feel depressed, but it can also worsen your outlook when it comes to negative thoughts and real problems you may be facing, which can lead to anxious thoughts. Benzodiazepines may also be used as short-term therapeutic relief from anxiety, especially panic disorders. But they aren’t recommended for long-term use.

Sources

Anxiety and Depression Association of America. (n.d.). Facts & Statistics. from https://adaa.org/about-adaa/press-room/facts-statistics

Burrows, W. (n.d.). Disease. from https://www.britannica.com/science/disease

Bandelow, B., Michaelis, S., & Wedekind, D. (2017, June). Treatment of anxiety disorders. from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5573566/

Domschke, K., & Dannlowski, U. (2009, November 26). Imaging genetics of anxiety disorders. from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1053811909012270

RxList. (2018, February 6). Benzodiazepines Drug Class: Side Effects, Types & Uses. from https://www.rxlist.com/benzodiazepines/drug-class.htm

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