Anxiety Disorder: Defeating the Invisible Enemy

By Dr. Saloni Gupta in Mental Health And Behavioural Sciences , Clinical Psychology

Jan 22 , 2024 | 12 min read

Despite all the advancements that have made our lives much easier, anxiety continues to be a growing concern all over the world, more so in urban areas. Dr. Saloni Gupta tells us how anxiety can make us feel gripped and give us a general feeling of apprehension about the possibility of future danger. She says our body reacts as if there is a danger but actually “there is no danger”. Despite that, anxiety can easily weave its intricate threads in the tapestry of our lives, influencing our thoughts, emotions, and actions, often presenting an array of challenges, ranging from sudden panic attacks to persistent worry that can spiral into suicidal tendencies. 

In this comprehensive exploration, we unravel the complex nature of anxiety, aiming to shed light on the diverse spectrum of disorders it encompasses, along with their causes, symptoms and treatment options.

Causes of Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety disorders are a complex interplay of various factors encompassing genetics, neurobiology, environmental influences, and individual life experiences. Here’s a quick overview:

Brain Chemistry

  • Neurotransmitter imbalance: Anxiety disorders may arise from disruptions in neurotransmitter functioning, including serotonin, dopamine, and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA).
  • Amygdala activation: The amygdala, a key player in emotional responses, can exhibit hyperactivity, contributing to heightened anxiety levels.

Environmental Stressors

  • Early life experiences: Childhood trauma, neglect, or chronic stress can create a vulnerability to anxiety disorders later in life.
  • Life events: Significant life changes, such as loss, divorce, or job instability, can act as triggers or exacerbate existing anxiety.
  • Post-traumatic stress: Exposure to traumatic events, ranging from accidents to violence, can be a precursor to the development of a particular type of anxiety disorder, called Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
  • Chronic stress: Prolonged exposure to stressors without effective coping mechanisms may contribute to the development of chronic anxiety.

Genetic Factors

Evidence suggests a hereditary inclination toward anxiety disorders, with individuals having a family history of anxiety facing an increased risk of developing the disorder.

Types of Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety disorders encompass a diverse array of conditions, each characterised by unique symptoms, triggers, and manifestations. Understanding the specific types is crucial for accurate diagnosis and tailored treatment. Let's delve into the common types of anxiety.

Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

Generalised anxiety disorder entails persistent and excessive worry about various aspects of life, along with an intense fear of being criticised, embarrassed or humiliated. Common concerns include health, family, work, social image, and daily responsibilities. 

Panic Disorder

Panic disorder is characterised by recurrent and unexpected panic attacks, each marked by intense fear and physical symptoms. Symptoms may include shortness of breath, chest pain, dizziness, and sweating, leading to a heightened sense of fear and vulnerability.

Selective Mutism

Selective Mutism refers to a consistent inability to speak in specific social situations despite being able to communicate effectively in other settings. This condition is often observed in school or social gatherings, where affected individuals may struggle to verbalise their thoughts or feelings.


Agoraphobia is characterised by an intense fear of situations where escape might be difficult or where help may not be readily available in the event of a panic attack. Individuals with agoraphobia often avoid crowded places, open spaces, or public transportation.

Separation Anxiety Disorder

Primarily recognized in children, separation anxiety disorder involves excessive fear or anxiety concerning separation from attachment figures. The distress can persist into adulthood, impacting various aspects of daily life.

Social Anxiety Disorder (Social Phobia)

Social anxiety disorder is characterised by an intense fear of social situations, accompanied by a persistent concern about potential embarrassment or negative evaluation by others. Common triggers include public speaking, meeting new people, and participating in social gatherings.

Specific Phobias

Specific phobias entail an intense fear of particular objects, situations, or activities. Examples include fear of heights, animals, flying, or medical procedures such as receiving an injection. 

Anxiety Due to a Medical Condition

This type of anxiety disorder manifests as symptoms resulting from an underlying medical condition, such as a respiratory or cardiovascular disorder. It can also be linked to the side effects of certain medications or chronic illnesses.

Substance-Induced Anxiety Disorder

This type of anxiety disorder is triggered by the use of substances such as drugs or withdrawal from substances. Examples include anxiety induced by alcohol consumption or withdrawal-related anxiety during substance detoxification.

Symptoms of Anxiety Disorders 

Anxiety disorders can present a spectrum of symptoms that can impact a person's thoughts, emotions, and physical well-being. Here are some common symptoms of anxiety disorders:

Physical Symptoms

  • Increased heart rate: Physiological symptoms include an increased heart rate or palpitations. The body's "fight or flight" response may be activated even in non-threatening situations.
  • Shortness of breath: Difficulty breathing or a feeling of breathlessness can accompany anxiety attacks. This symptom is particularly prominent in disorders like panic disorder.
  • Muscle tension: Anxiety often manifests physically, leading to muscle tension and stiffness. This can result in headaches, back pain, or a general feeling of bodily discomfort
  • Fatigue: Chronic fatigue can result from the constant strain of heightened anxiety. Sleep disturbances and difficulty relaxing contribute to persistent feelings of exhaustion
  • Excessive sweating: Profuse sweating, especially in the palms or underarms, is a common physical symptom associated with anxiety.
  • Gastrointestinal issues: Anxiety can impact the digestive system, leading to symptoms such as nausea, stomach cramps, or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
  • Feeling dizzy or lightheaded: Some individuals experience dizziness or lightheadedness, especially during anxiety-inducing situations or panic attacks.

Mental Symptoms

  • Excessive worry: Individuals with anxiety disorders often experience persistent and overwhelming worry about various aspects of life, even in the absence of imminent threats.
  • Restlessness: A sense of restlessness or feeling on edge is a prevalent symptom. It may manifest as fidgeting, an inability to sit still, or a constant need to be in motion.
  • Irritability: Increased irritability is a common emotional response to anxiety. Individuals may find themselves easily agitated or frustrated, even in situations that wouldn't typically provoke such reactions.
  • Difficulty concentrating: Cognitive symptoms include difficulty concentrating and a persistent feeling of being easily distracted. This can impact work, academic performance, and daily tasks.
  • Racing thoughts: A rapid stream of racing thoughts, often focused on potential threats or worst-case scenarios, is a hallmark of anxiety. These thoughts can be intrusive and difficult to control.

Behavioural Symptoms

  • Avoidance behaviours: Individuals with anxiety disorders may develop avoidance behaviours to escape situations that trigger anxiety. This can limit their daily activities and social interactions.
  • Sleep disturbances: Insomnia or disrupted sleep patterns are common in individuals with anxiety disorders. Racing thoughts and worry can make it challenging to achieve restful sleep.
  • Panic attacks: Panic attacks are intense episodes of fear accompanied by physical symptoms such as chest pain, trembling, and a sense of impending doom.

Recognizing these symptoms and seeking professional support as early as possible is essential for managing anxiety disorders effectively. Early intervention can lead to improved quality of life and better long-term outcomes.

Diagnosis of Anxiety Disorders

Diagnosing anxiety disorders involves a careful and culturally sensitive assessment that considers various factors impacting an individual's mental health, family background, financial health, and many others. The diagnostic process includes the following key elements:

Clinical Assessment

  • Patient interview: A comprehensive interview is conducted to understand the individual's symptoms, their duration, and any triggering factors. Gathering insights into the cultural and contextual aspects of the individual's life is crucial.
  • Medical and psychiatric history: Evaluating the individual's medical and psychiatric history helps in identifying any underlying physical or mental health conditions.

Physical Examination

A physical examination may be conducted to rule out any physical health issues contributing to anxiety symptoms. This step is particularly important to ensure a holistic understanding of the individual's well-being.

Psychological Testing

Psychological testing, while not always necessary, may be used to assess the severity of symptoms and to tailor treatment plans more precisely. Culturally appropriate testing tools are employed to account for diverse expressions of anxiety.

Observation and Behavioural Analysis

Observing the individual's behaviour and analysing their responses to specific situations provides valuable insights into the nature and intensity of anxiety. Behavioural analysis helps in understanding culturally influenced behaviours and identifying triggers.

Collateral Information

Input from family members, friends, or other relevant sources is considered to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the individual's symptoms and functioning within the cultural context.

Differential Diagnosis

Differentiating anxiety disorders from other mental health conditions and considering the influence of cultural factors is essential. This includes distinguishing anxiety from culturally normative expressions of stress.

Duration and Functional Impact

Diagnosis takes into account the duration and functional impact of symptoms. Anxiety is considered a disorder when it persists for a significant period and significantly interferes with daily life, work, or relationships.

Treatment of Anxiety Disorders

The human brain is somewhat like a smoke alarm - it can assist to protect us when fire catches in reality but when a smoke alarm system is too sensitive, it may go off even when there is not really a fire (e.g., burning toast in a toaster). Just like a smoke alarm, anxiety is helpful and adaptive when it works right. But, if it goes off when there is no real danger, it is not only scary, it can also be extremely exhausting. However, we do not want to get rid of the alarm (or eliminate anxiety) because it protects us from danger. We want to fix it (i.e., bring the anxiety down to a more manageable level) so it works properly for us. Here are some of the anxiety treatment options used by specialists to treat anxiety: 


  • Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT): CBT generally stands as a cornerstone in anxiety disorder treatment. The therapy is focused on identifying and challenging negative thought patterns and behaviours, and is highly effective in treating various anxiety disorders.
  • Exposure therapy: Exposure therapy aims to reduce anxiety by systematically exposing individuals to their fears. Therapists create a hierarchy of anxiety-inducing stimuli, and this desensitisation helps rewire the brain's response to anxiety triggers.
  • Mindfulness-based therapies: Mindfulness-based approaches, such as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) aim to enhance the patient’s awareness of the present moment, helping them break free from cycles of worry.
  • Psychodynamic therapy: Psychodynamic therapy explores the unconscious processes contributing to anxiety, by delving into early life experiences, to uncover patterns inducing anxiety, thereby helping resolve unresolved conflicts and develop healthier coping mechanisms.
  • Interpersonal therapy (IPT): IPT focuses on improving interpersonal relationships and communication skills. It addresses how relationship dynamics may contribute to anxiety and provides tools to navigate social interactions.
  • Dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT): Originally developed for borderline personality disorder, DBT incorporates cognitive-behavioural strategies with elements of mindfulness. DBT has shown efficacy in treating anxiety, especially in individuals with co-occurring emotional dysregulation.
  • Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs): Another older class of antidepressants, MAOIs can be effective in treating certain anxiety disorders. However, they have potentially serious interactions with certain foods and medications, requiring careful monitoring.

The choice of medication depends on factors such as the specific type of anxiety disorder, individual response to treatment, and considerations such as comorbid conditions and potential side effects. Regular monitoring by healthcare professionals is essential to ensure the effectiveness and safety of the chosen medication.

Lifestyle Changes and Coping Strategies

  • Regular exercise: Incorporating regular exercise into daily life is fundamental for managing anxiety disorders. Aerobic activities have been shown to have a positive impact on mental health, helping alleviate anxiety symptoms and contributing to overall well-being.
  • Balanced diet: A balanced and nutritious diet is crucial for optimal brain function and emotional well-being. Some individuals may benefit from reducing their intake of caffeine and sugar, as these substances can contribute to heightened anxiety.
  • Adequate sleep: Establishing healthy sleep patterns is essential in the management of anxiety. Consistent and sufficient sleep not only supports physical health but also enhances emotional resilience. Addressing sleep disturbances is key to improving overall well-being.
  • Stress management techniques: Learning effective stress management techniques helps with coping with anxiety. Deep breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, and yoga are practical tools that individuals can integrate into their daily routines to navigate stressors.
  • Support groups: Engaging and connecting with others who share similar experiences allows individuals to share insights, coping strategies, and encouragement, fostering a supportive environment for managing anxiety.

Final words

In today’s fast paced world, it has become more important than ever for people to take care of their mental health and overall well-being. The complexities of contemporary life often contribute to this challenge, making it essential to seek effective solutions. If you find yourself or someone you know struggling with anxiety, consulting a specialist at Max Hospitals could be a pragmatic step. Our team of psychiatrists and psychologists follows a comprehensive and personalised approach to navigate and manage the intricacies of anxiety, ensuring every patient receives the best possible care.

Frequently Asked Questions about Anxiety Disorders

Q. How can I help someone with an anxiety disorder?

Offering support and understanding is crucial. Encourage them to seek professional help, and be patient and non-judgmental. Educate yourself about their specific anxiety disorder and provide assistance in finding appropriate resources.

Q. Can anxiety disorders coexist with other mental health conditions?

Yes, individuals with anxiety disorders may also experience coexisting conditions, such as depression or substance abuse. This is known as comorbidity, and treatment plans often address multiple aspects of mental health.

Q. How long does treatment for anxiety disorders typically last?

The duration of treatment varies based on individual factors, the type and severity of the anxiety disorder, and the chosen treatment modalities. Some may find relief relatively quickly, while others may require longer-term support.

Q. When should I consult a specialist for anxiety concerns?

If you experience persistent and distressing symptoms of anxiety that interfere with daily life, it's advisable to consult a mental health specialist. If needed, specialists at Max Hospitals can provide expert guidance and support tailored to your specific needs.

Q. What is a panic attack?

A panic attack is a sudden episode of intense fear or discomfort that peaks within minutes. It can involve physical symptoms like a rapid heart rate, sweating, trembling, shortness of breath, and a sense of impending doom. Panic attacks are a common feature of panic disorder but can also occur in other anxiety disorders.

Q. Can stress and anxiety cause chest pain?

Yes, stress and anxiety can contribute to physical symptoms, including chest pain. In some cases, this may be related to heightened muscle tension or hyperventilation during periods of anxiety. However, it's essential to rule out any underlying medical conditions, and individuals experiencing chest pain should seek medical evaluation.

Q. Who can diagnose anxiety disorders?

Mental health professionals, including psychiatrists, psychologists, and licensed therapists, can diagnose anxiety disorders. A comprehensive assessment typically involves a clinical interview, consideration of diagnostic criteria, and, if necessary, psychological testing.

Q. Can anxiety disorders be prevented?

While it's challenging to prevent anxiety disorders entirely, certain lifestyle choices and stress management techniques can contribute to reducing the risk. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle, seeking social support, and learning effective coping strategies can help mitigate the impact of stressors on mental health. 

Q. What to do when someone has an anxiety attack?

If someone is experiencing an anxiety attack, it's crucial to remain calm. Encourage them to focus on slow, deep breaths. Offer reassurance and ask if they have any specific coping mechanisms they find helpful. Avoid judgement or minimising their experience. If the anxiety attack is severe or persists, it may be advisable to seek professional help or medical attention.