Anxiety Epidemic

Anxiety is a normal reaction to a stressor.  However, when anxiety becomes excessive, an irrational dread of everyday situations, and it lasts for 6 months or more, it becomes a disabling disorder.  Dr. Paul Foxman of the Centre for Anxiety Disorders and Trauma and a speaker at a recent conference in Halifax, refers to anxiety as an “emerging epidemic” due, in part, to the North American “culture of fear.”  Dr. Foxman, author of The Worried Child, says that anxiety is the American’s number one emotional problem. “Twenty-eight million American adults and children already suffer from severe anxiety and the numbers are soaring.  At some point in their lives, one in four people will be paralyzed by anxiety disorders.” Dr. Foxman goes on to say that “anxiety in children diminishes their intellectual, emotional, and social development as well as their physical health.”  Children today deal with increased family breakdown, uncertainty, rapidly changing technology, and exposure to information that is inappropriate for them to process. The result is a “shell-shocked generation of children.”

The Canadian Mental Health Association says that 1 in 10 adults experience anxiety disorder.  Under the heading of anxiety disorders there are several specific conditions such as panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), social phobia, specific phobias, and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).

Anxiety disorders are real illnesses.  Unlike the relatively mild, brief anxiety that most people experience when confronted with a stressor, those with anxiety disorders are filled with fearfulness and uncertainty on an on-going basis.  Even though they may be very aware that their sense of dread an impending doom is illogical they do not know how to stop the cycle. 

Although a person with panic disorder feels like they are having a heart attack, when they are not, it does not mean that their symptoms are “all in their head” or that they are faking it.  Recently, an individual with panic disorder put it this way, “I’m afraid to go places where I’ve had an attack. Unless I get help, soon there won’t be anyplace where I can go.”

PTSD develops after a terrifying ordeal involving the threat of or actual physical harm to the person, a loved one, or even after witnessing a stranger experiencing such an event.  We have become familiar with PTSD as it relates to war veterans. However, this disorder can occur at any age, including childhood and is more common among women than men.

Dr. Foxman cites three factors that determine who is more likely to experience an anxiety disorder: a genetic predisposition (20% of infants have a heightened sensitivity to noise, lights, and other stimulation); personality traits (perfectionism, worry, and a strong need for social acceptance); and stress overload (lack of effective stress management skills).

The National Institute of Mental Health says that a large, national survey of adolescents with  anxiety disorder, reported that symptoms commonly emerged around the age of 6.

Increasingly, children are exposed to video games and television programs that focus on “get him before he gets you!”  Video games incite a hyper vigilance mentality with which children are not equipped to deal. We have generally assumed that children do not experience stress and that they are naturally able to relax.  Neither of these assumptions could be further from the truth. 

Barry Glassner, author of The Culture of Fear, claims that unscrupulous media outlets publish and promote false and overdrawn statistics about events that cause much anxiety for people, especially the most vulnerable.  Glassner, a sociology professor at the University of Southern California, uses persuasive logic and well-chosen statistics in his book to demonstrate the infrequency of events that are over-reported. Incidents are blown out of proportion by a mass media that thrives on scaring people.  Glassner’s book offers a much-needed antidote to the media virus of misinformation.

The good news is that anxiety disorders are treatable.  Effective treatments include cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT); medications; stress management skills (relaxation exercises, meditation); and exercise (aerobic, yoga).

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