In today’s hectic, unpredictable, economically fluctuating world, it’s not unusual to have feelings of anxiety.
It’s a normal reaction many people are familiar with. Most often, it is actually a sense of being stressed, worried, frazzled, pressured or nervous. For example, employees feel stressed when they are overwhelmed with work-related tasks and do not have enough time to get everything done and students feel stressed when they prepare to write an exam, feeling ill-equipped.
However, there is a difference between this type of stress and anxiety, which can become debilitating and affect your life. An anxiety disorder is diagnosed when various symptoms create significant distress and some degree of functional impairment in daily living.
Sherry Holt, president of the Anxiety Disorders Association of Canada (ADAC), notes that there are seven main anxiety disorders: social anxiety disorder; post-traumatic stress disorder; panic disorder with or without agoraphobia; obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD); specific phobia, generalized anxiety disorder, and separation anxiety (in children and youth).
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illnesses and tend to start early in life, often persisting for many years.
“Anxiety is a hindrance to life, and although the issue of mental health is being discussed more openly, it is still a stigma,” says Genevieve Charette, executive director of the ADAC.
She adds that statistically women get more anxiety disorders than men, although with OCD, it’s 50-50.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, a phobia is an irrational and excessive fear of an object or situation and involves a sense of endangerment or a fear of harm. For example, people suffering from agoraphobia fear being trapped in an inescapable place or situation. They are not necessarily afraid of open spaces. Panic disorders involve sudden, intense feelings of terror for no apparent reason, with symptoms similar to a heart attack. And people with OCD cope with anxiety by repeating activities in a ritualistic manner, such as constant hand washing or returning several times to check if they have locked a door. Comedian Howie Mandel suffers from OCD and has spoken publicly about how he lives with it.
The ADAC came into being in 2002 after doctors, therapists and scientists began to realize that there was a need for advocacy to create awareness that anxiety disorders are a huge problem in Canada. In fact, Charette says that “one in eight people will suffer from anxiety disorders and that 85 per cent can be cured through treatment and/or medication. Untreated anxiety can escalate to depression and suicidal thoughts, as well as lead to dependency on alcohol or drugs.”
The ADAC’s mission is to promote the prevention, treatment and management of anxiety disorders and to improve the lives of people who suffer from them. It is a resource service offering assistance in find help for anxiety disorders. Annual conferences are held to educate the consumer and his/her family, as well as the medical profession.
“If a family member doesn’t understand anxiety disorder, they cannot fully understand how that person is suffering,” Charette says. “When a spouse, sibling or parent attends an information session, they get that ‘ah-hah’ moment, that this is really true.”
They learn that anxiety disorders are real and common, and treatable with anti-depression drugs and cognitive behaviour therapy.
“We are also hoping to set up a checklist of what people should bring forward to their doctors, as many GPs [general practitioners] don’t understand it and are misdiagnosing anxiety disorder and sending patients for unnecessary tests,” Charette says.
Depending on funding, ADAC would also like to create what Charette calls a “road show,” in which information seminars would be offered to doctors, to explain to them how anxiety disorders can be treated.
According to the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health, “effective treatments for anxiety disorders are available and research is yielding new, improved therapies that can help most people with anxiety disorders lead productive, fulfilling lives.”
For more information, contact the Anxiety Disorders Association of Canada at 514-484-0504 (1-888-223-2252) or visit their website at www.anxietycanada.ca.