Draw the line between anxiety disorder and worrywart

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Everyone experiences anxiety. It is normal to feel jittery before a big presentation or to stress out before a first date, but anxiety becomes a problem when constant worrying gets in the way of the rest of your life.

Anxiety disorders are a group of conditions rather than one specific disorder. They all involve chronic or relentless fear in situations in which other people would not typically feel threatened. There are six main types of anxiety disorders: generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), specific phobias, social anxiety disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Anxiety disorders come on slowly but can occur at any age and in varying severity. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety disorders affect more than 40 million Americans adults each year. Women are 60 percent more likely to have an anxiety disorder than men.

You might be a chronic worrywart, but how do you know that you have crossed the line? Here are some general characteristics of anxiety disorders:

Someone with an anxiety disorder can experience both emotional and physical symptoms. Emotional symptoms include constant worrying, apprehension and dread. People with anxiety disorders may believe that something bad will happen if they do not do things a certain way or that danger and catastrophe are everywhere. They may have trouble concentrating, feel irritable or restless. Everyone has problems, but people with anxiety disorders may blow theirs out of proportion and develop an unrealistic view of their severity.

Physical symptoms include a pounding heart, upset stomach or shortness of breath. People with anxiety disorders may urinate frequently or feel dizzy. Sweating, tremors or twitches or fatigue are other possible symptoms. Anxiety disorders may cause muscle tension, headaches or insomnia as well.

It is common for someone to experience more than one type of anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders also often coincide with depression, substance abuse and/or eating disorders.
A doctor can diagnose an anxiety disorder by asking you about the duration and degree of your symptoms, but there are no specific lab tests. Usually, symptoms occur more days than not for at least six months.

Every anxiety disorder manifests in different ways, and each individual needs to find his or her own treatment plan. Common strategies include:

Therapy: Behavioral therapy places the focus on actions and behaviors rather than the underlying issues and is one popular component of anxiety disorder treatment. Cognitive-behavior therapy helps you identify and challenge your negative thought patterns and any irrational thinking. Exposure therapy allows you to face your fears in a controlled environment. For example, someone with OCD may be forced to eat their food without first arranging it in a certain pattern or order. Psychotherapy may also be helpful.

Medications: Antidepressants and benzodiazepines have proven helpful in treating anxiety disorders, but should be taken under medical supervision. Anti-anxiety drugs, like Xanax and Valium, are fast-acting but can be can be addicting. Antidepressants, like Prozac and Zoloft, have a lower risk of dependency but may take a month or more to kick in.

Self-help: Even if you do not have a serious anxiety disorder and just happen to be a nervous person, it is important to evaluate how you are taking care of yourself and determine if you lead an unhealthy lifestyle. Are you eating right and taking care of your body? Are you getting enough sleep? Are you capable of asking for help when necessary? Stress will bring anxiety into your life. Are you consuming way too much caffeine? Learn relaxation skills, like deep breathing, meditation and yoga. Practice stress management and healthy coping skills.

Check with your healthcare provider, but many insurance plans cover anxiety disorders.
Establish a support system. Anxiety disorders cannot be prevented, but living a healthy lifestyle where you limit caffeine, eat right, exercise and employ stress management techniques can help you control symptoms and live better.