Anxiety is characterised by acute and persistent worry about everyday situations.

While most people experience anxiety, this normal human emotion can become a disorder if it interferes with your ability to cope with your daily life.

Examples of anxiety disorders include generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), social anxiety disorder (social phobia), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), specific phobias (such as an uncontrollable fear of snakes, heights or flying) and separation anxiety disorder.

According to the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), GAD — one of the most common forms of anxiety — is characterised by chronic and exaggerated worry and tension, even though nothing seems to provoke it.

While anxiety’s causes remain unknown, experts believe it may be a combination of factors, including changes in the brain and environmental stress. Anxiety disorders can also be inherited from one or both parents.

Symptoms of anxiety and depression often occur together.

What are its symptoms?

Since anxiety symptoms can mimic other disorders — such as heart disease, thyroid problems, breathing disorders, and other illnesses — it can be difficult to diagnose.

Anxiety can and often does accompany physical disorders. Common anxiety symptoms include:

  • Chest pain
  • Heart palpitations
  • Abdominal discomfort with loose stools or constipation
  • Flatulence and bloating
  • Heartburn
  • Headaches
  • Hyperventilation syndrome, where there is lightheadedness, pins and needles in the fingers, toes or around the mouth, feeling faint or even ‘blacking out’

People with panic disorder, for example, often make many visits to emergency rooms or doctors’ offices, convinced they have a life-threatening issue.

How is it diagnosed?

There is no one anxiety disorder test. If you have any of these symptoms, have an anxiety attack, or suspect you may have an anxiety disorder, consult your doctor.

He/she will ask you about your medical history and complete a physical examination. If no physical illness is found, you may be referred to a psychologist or psychiatrist for an evaluation. Your diagnosis will be based on the intensity and duration of your symptoms, behavioural changes and ability to function in everyday situations.

What are your treatment options?

Anxiety disorders are treatable, and the majority of people can be helped with professional care.

The exact anxiety treatment depends on the type of disorder but your doctor will use one or a combination of these treatments:

  • Anti-anxiety medication to reduce the symptoms of anxiety disorders, such as antidepressants and anxiety-reducing drugs. However, be very cautious about using anxiolytics (anti-anxiety medication), as they are potentially habit-forming. In the majority of cases requiring medication, there is associated depression, and the anxiety can be managed easily with an antidepressant.
  • Psychotherapy to provide strategies for understanding and dealing with the disorder.
  • Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), which helps in learning to recognise and change thought patterns and behaviours.
  • Changes to diet and lifestyle: Psychologists studying how exercise relieves anxiety and depression, for example, suggest that a 10-minute walk may be just as good as a 45-minute workout.

Can it be prevented?

As the exact causes of anxiety aren’t known, there’s no guaranteed way to prevent it. But experts suggest steps you can take to reduce the impact of symptoms, for example:

  • Stop or reduce your consumption of unhealthy substances. Alcohol and drug use — and even caffeine or nicotine use, can cause or worsen anxiety.
  • Seek counselling after a traumatic or disturbing experience. Get help early. Anxiety can be harder to treat if you wait.
  • Keep a journal to record thoughts and feelings. If you know what’s causing your stress, you can work towards easing it.

For more info
The South African Depression and Anxiety Group

The accuracy of this information was checked and approved by physician Dr Thomas Blake in May 2015