Anxiety is an mental state that is often experienced in different but interconnected ways, including: uncomfortable physical sensations (racing heart, shortness of breath, restlessness, digestive distress, lightheadedness), negative thoughts (believing something bad is likely to happen, worrying about the future, fear of social judgment), and problematic behaviors (difficulty sleeping, increased use of alcohol or drugs, absenteeism from work, social isolation).

Researchers have argued that anxiety is a universal human emotion that has been critical to our survival as a species. When we experience it as a natural part of our nervous system’s response to danger, it keeps us focused and motivated in emergencies.

If you or a loved one is experiencing distressing levels of anxiety, it is important to seek help and know that you are not alone.

However, for close to 18 percent of adults and nearly 8 percent of children and adolescents in the United States, anxiety reaches a level of severity that is exceptionally distressing and interferes with their ability to function at home, school, work and in social interactions. In other words, anxiety becomes a disorder. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health disorders in the United States. People with an anxiety disorders are more likely to see doctors for physical complaints, less likely to do well at school and more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol. Nearly half of people diagnosed with an anxiety disorder also suffer from depression.

Seeking treatment

Only about one in three adults who struggle with anxiety receive treatment, and that number is even less for children and adolescents. One reason for this may be the stigma that still surrounds anxiety (and other psychological) disorders, despite the fact that they are common aspects of the human condition and present in all people regardless of age, race, ethnicity, gender, educational background or socioeconomic status. 

The good news is that doctors know a lot about anxiety and how to effectively treat it, so that many sufferers who seek treatment can start to feel better in a relatively brief amount of time (sometimes as quick as a few weeks). Cognitive-behavioral talk therapy has been proven to be an effective treatment, often coupled with a prescription for drugs like sertraline or venlafaxine.

The most important things to remember are that anxiety is normal and anxiety disorders are common. If you or a loved one is experiencing distressing levels of anxiety, it is important to seek help and know that you are not alone.