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Healthy minds: A look at anxiety disorders

Chelsea Jones | 5/13/2013, 12:49 p.m. | Updated on 5/13/2013, 12:50 p.m.
Anxiety disorders are a group of mental illnesses that cause excessive worry or fear, affecting about 40 million Americans each ...
Royce White, who plays for the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, the Houston Rockets' developmental league affiliate, has general anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder. White was the Rockets' first-round draft pick last year and has yet to play for the Rockets. Pat Sullivan

Anxiety disorders are a group of mental illnesses that cause excessive worry or fear, affecting about 40 million Americans each year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. These disorders affect all nationalities. However, African Americans are less likely to seek or stay in treatment.

Episodes of anxiety may be difficult to control and can interfere with daily life. The most common anxiety disorders are specific phobias, social phobia, post-traumatic stress disorder, general anxiety disorder, panic disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder. These disorders usually begin in childhood or adolescence and continue into adulthood. What causes these illnesses is not well-understood, but research shows genes may be a factor.

The disorders are more likely to occur in women than men, with the exception of social phobia and OCD, which are equally likely to develop in both genders. African Americans and other minorities are less likely to be diagnosed with social phobia, GAD and panic disorder than White Americans. However, African Americans are more frequently diagnosed with PTSD than other minorities and White Americans, according to one study published in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Diseases.

Specific phobias are the most common anxiety disorders and involve intense, irrational fears of objects or situations that pose little or no danger. People with specific phobias often avoid these objects or situations. Some common specific phobias are a fear of closed-in spaces, heights, escalators and flying.

Social phobia, also called social anxiety disorder, is an illness in which people become highly anxious and self-conscious in everyday social situations. They have a persistent fear of being watched, judged or embarrassed. When placed in uncomfortable situations, they may blush, tremble, sweat, become nauseous or have difficulty speaking.

PTSD is a condition that can develop after a traumatic incident of harm or the threat of harm. It causes people to become easily startled, emotionally numb, irritable, aggressive or violent. People may have consistent flashbacks of the event and may avoid situations that remind them of it. Anniversaries of the event can prove to be difficult. Symptoms usually begin within three months of the incident and must last at least one month to be considered PTSD.

With GAD, people excessively worry, are easily startled, have difficulty concentrating, and can’t relax. They may experience fatigue, muscle aches, headaches, trembling, hot flashes, sweating, nausea, breathlessness, irritability, difficulty swallowing and frequent urination. When a person worries excessively for at least six months, GAD is diagnosed.

Panic disorder is characterized by sudden panic attacks. During these attacks, a person feels suspended in unreality or fears losing control or an impending doom. Other symptoms include a rapid heartbeat, chest pain, dizziness, sweatiness, fatigue, nausea, smothering sensations, and tingling or numbness in hands.

Panic attacks usually last 10 minutes or longer and can occur at any time, even during sleep. About a third of people living with a panic disorder become housebound and confront the feared situation only when accompanied by a trusted person. When the disorder progresses this far, it is called agoraphobia, which is a fear of open spaces.