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Anxiety: When worry or panic takes over

More than ‘fight or flight’

Karen Miller | 9/21/2015, 6 a.m.
Anxiety is the most common type of mental health disorder. It is most often characterized by panic attacks, phobias or ...
Kai Roberts uses meditation and music to help him cope with anxiety. Active Minds

Everyone experiences anxiety now and then. Actually that’s a normal reaction to life’s stresses. The “fight or flight” response enables us to act quickly when faced with danger. But when the feeling does not go away or appears in response to common everyday events, an anxiety disorder may be the cause.

Anxiety disorders are the most common type of mental illness, affecting roughly 18 percent of Americans 18 or older each year, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. The most common age of occurrence is 30 to 44, but it frequently strikes teens and young adults. It is more common in females. Although the exact cause is unknown, there appears to be a genetic link.

There are several types of anxiety. Panic disorders are characterized by sudden and repeated attacks of fear. The symptoms are often mistaken for a heart attack — pounding heart, sweating, dizziness and even chest pain. Sufferers begin to avoid places where panic attacks have occurred in the past. Extreme cases can result in social isolation. When the condition progresses to that degree, it is called agoraphobia, or fear of public places.

People with generalized anxiety disorder, or GAD, are worry-warts. They think things will always go badly. They worry about things even when there is no need. For instance, it is not unusual to be concerned about health, but people with GAD may imagine things are worse than they really are. The stomach ache must be an ulcer; the headache, brain cancer. At times, worrying keeps people with GAD from doing everyday tasks.

Social phobia, or social anxiety disorder, is not a case of extreme shyness, as some people think. Rather, it is an irrational fear of being judged by others and of being humiliated. They worry about “saying something stupid,” or “not knowing what to say.” This fear can be so strong that it prevents people from going to work or school or doing other everyday things.

The good news is that anxiety disorders are treatable. Medication, psychotherapy or both are the typical course of treatment. However, although treatment is available, only about one-third of those diagnosed with the disorder receive minimally adequate treatment, as noted by the National Institute of Mental Health.

Kai Roberts, 23, entered Carnegie Mellon University in 2010. During the summer following his sophomore year he began to experience panic attacks that were so severe, he took a semester off. “Prior to taking my leave of absence, the anxiety had me believing that I was on the brink of insanity and that I would never get better. Through a three-week period, I experienced everything that extreme anxiety had to offer — obsessions, compulsions, fears, suicidal thoughts and depression,” Roberts wrote on his website.

His time off was well spent. He added a unique form of treatment to his therapy. Roberts has been a music aficionado since he was a kid, and drew on that background to help him heal. He said it gave him a sense of focus. “I used music as my medication,” he said.

His therapy resulted in the production of an album, Carnegie Café, which Roberts claims allowed him to put his thoughts and frustrations dealing with his anxiety in the form of poetry. The project helped him, he said, but more than that, he wants it to help others who experience similar situations. Roberts returned to college and recently graduated.

He joined the speakers’ bureau of Active Minds, a mental health advocacy group for college students. His alliance with Active Minds will allow him to perform at colleges nationwide. More importantly, he wants to help and empower others facing a mental illness.

"It was a straight-up battle dealing with my anxiety,” Roberts said. But with cognitive behavioral therapy, meditation and his music, he’s come a long way. “I’m much calmer now,” he said.

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