How to Relieve the Acute Discomfort of Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety disorder can cause intrusive thoughts and panic.
Anxiety is normal, say psychiatrists. Anxiety disorders are not. The most common mental illness in the U.S., anxiety disorders afflict 40 million adults—twice as many women as men—and take a toll on the economy of more than $40 billion each year due to health-care costs and lost productivity.

People with anxiety are often at greater risk for suicide than depressed patients, because the latter usually lack the energy and motivation to kill themselves. "Anxiety, however, drives people to do things to get rid of the discomfort," says Kenneth Robbins, MD, clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Fears that aren't real
On Sunday nights, Michelle Roe's body went through a ritual: She got pain in her stomach, her fingertips went numb, her face and neck felt flushed and prickly, and she would run into the bathroom to dry heave. "I thought I was going to die if I went to work," says the 32-year-old resident of Adrian, Mich. "I was an accountant, so it was not like my job was dangerous."

Roe sought treatment from her obstetrician, her primary care doctor, and a psychologist that her employer paid for. She cycled through several medications, including Prozac and Celexa, and eventually learned to manage her panic attacks and paralyzing fears through self-help books and support from her husband. "I still have fear," she says, "but I am able to step back and see that it's not real. I realize that nothing is going to hurt me."

The challenge of diagnosing anxiety disorders is that everybody has some degree of anxiety, unless they are in a coma or are a psychopath, says Sally Winston, PsyD, codirector of the Anxiety and Stress Disorders Institute of Maryland in Towson. "It's disordered when it interferes with life or causes a lot of distress."

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Last Updated: May 03, 2008

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