The medical definition of anxiety provided in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary is “an abnormal and overwhelming sense of apprehension and fear often marked by physical signs (such as tension, sweating, and increased pulse rate), by doubt concerning the reality and nature of the threat, and by self-doubt about one’s capacity to cope with it.” Anxiety is the body’s natural response to stress and depending on its severity can manifest in a variety of ways. However, persistent distress and severe anxiety can be unhealthy for the brain and the body. Chronic stress is a pathological state that is caused by prolonged activation of the normal acute physiological stress response, which can wreak havoc on immune, metabolic, and cardiovascular systems. When left untreated anxiety can result in a variety of adverse long-term effects, some of which include the following:
- Inflammation in the body: Under repeated stress, the blood-brain barrier is weakened and does not protect circulating inflammatory proteins from entering the brain. Chronic inflammation can lead to a range of health problems, including diabetes and heart disease.
- Hormone imbalances: Anxiety affects certain hormones in the brain, including cortisol and corticotropin releasing factor (CRF). High, prolonged levels of cortisol have been associated with mood disorders as well as shrinkage of the hippocampus (area of the brain connected to learning and memory).
- Exacerbates mental illness: Anxiety can cause structural degeneration of the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus increasing the risk of dementia and the development of stress-induced affective and cognitive impairment.
- Overall weakening of the immune system: anxiety can alter protective immune responses, affecting one’s immune system in a potentially detrimental way.
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health disorders in the United States. There are currently five distinct types of anxiety disorders listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). They include the following: generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and social anxiety disorder (also known as social phobia). About 20% of the U.S. population is affected by anxiety disorders at any given time, and reports indicate that nearly 8% of teens between the ages of 13 to 18 have an anxiety disorder with symptoms commonly appearing around the age of 6. The exact cause for developing an anxiety disorder remains unknown. Research suggests that it is likely due to a combination of contributing factors such as psychological, environmental, genetic, and developmental factors.
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Every family in need of mental health treatment must select a program that will best suit the needs of their family. When one member of a family struggles, it impacts everyone in the family unit. To maximize the benefits of treatment we work closely with the entire family to ensure that everyone is receiving the support they need through these difficult times.
Seeking help is never easy, but you are not alone! If you or someone you know needs mental health treatment, we strongly encourage you to reach out for help as quickly as possible. It is not uncommon for many mental health difficulties to impact a person’s life, long term. Pursuing support at the beginning of one’s journey can put the individual in the best position to learn how to manage themselves in a healthy way so they can go on to live happy and fulfilling lives.
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