Everyone experiences some degree of anxiety at one point or another – it’s a perfectly natural, human feeling and even serves a survival function. Still, there is a difference between once-off or occasional bouts of anxiety and worry and daily overwhelming states of panic and fear, avoidance behaviors, and an array of other anxiety symptoms. Some of us experience such severe anxiety that gets in the way of us living a full life.
In this article, we’ll explore the nature of debilitating anxiety. If your anxiety has become so overwhelming that it prevents you from living a full life, then read on. We’ll touch on the nature of anxiety disorders and what makes anxiety debilitating. Later we’ll take a close look at the treatment options available if a common but challenging mental health condition is getting in the way of your life.
What is debilitating anxiety?
If you’ve ever experienced a panic attack, you’ll know just how uncomfortable and frightening it can be. If you get panic attacks often, you might tend to avoid situations in which your anxiety would get triggered. That’s a normal response to anxiety, but over time those situations may become more frequent and hard to avoid.
Choosing to avoid and withdraw may eventually lead to complete withdrawal from one’s life, such as work, school, or other social settings. In this case, your anxiety would become debilitating because it would get in the way of your overall health and well-being and impact your ability to function.
According to the German Medical Institution’s medically reviewed journal Deutsches Ärzteblatt International, ‘anxiety is considered a disease requiring treatment when it arises in the absence of any threat, or disproportionate relation to a threat, and keeps the affected individual from leading a normal life.’
Types of anxiety disorders
Frequent panic attacks and other anxiety symptoms are a sign of an anxiety disorder. Broadly speaking, there are five types of anxiety disorder – all of them are characterized by excessive fear and worry and can lead to a full-blown panic attack when triggered.
- Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
- Panic disorder (PD)
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Specific phobias (incl. social anxiety disorder and agoraphobia)
If you struggle with an anxiety disorder, understand that you’re not alone. These are some of the most common mental health conditions in the U.S and worldwide. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, almost 1 in 5 American adults struggle with anxiety. The World Health Organization reports that globally around 1 in 13 people suffer from an anxiety disorder.
Debilitating anxiety and avoidance behaviors
It’s natural to want to avoid or bypass situations that might trigger your anxiety. For example, if you struggle with social anxiety, then a loud party full of strangers can feel like a nightmare. You might much rather stay home or just spend time with one or two friends in a more calm, less triggering environment.
If you have a specific phobia, such as traveling by plane, then you might opt for land or sea travel instead because you worry that getting on a plane without the option to get off might lead to a panic attack.
If you suffer from PTSD, then people, places, and even sounds that remind you of your trauma may make you want to avoid them altogether. One of the challenges with PTSD is that it’s not always easy to avoid triggers. The fears and triggering stimuli are not always rational – a simple smell or a face that reminds the person of someone else can trigger one’s trauma and elicit an episode of extreme fear and panic.
Even though wanting to avoid triggering situations is normal, it’s still an avoidance behavior and is ultimately maladaptive. Avoidance may offer some short-term relief from looming panic or other rising anxiety symptoms, but in the long term, it reaffirms the fear and worry. The more you avoid it, the harder it becomes to face.
Moreover, while all avoidance behaviors are maladaptive, some are more dangerous than others. Some people who struggle with severe anxiety find short-term relief from substances such as alcohol, benzodiazepines, and other CNS depressants. The danger here lies in the fact that substances such as these are highly addictive.
If one finds some pleasure and relief in using them, then they’re likely to use them again and increase their risk of dependence and addiction. Once dependence and addiction occur, the anxiety disorder would become much more pronounced and require treatment focused on co-occurring disorders rather than the anxiety disorder alone.
Signs of debilitating anxiety
Whether you struggle with generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety, or PTSD, there are signs and symptoms common to all that you’re prone to experience. Some anxiety symptoms are mild, such as a feeling of unease or discomfort in certain situations or increased sweating and muscle tension. Others are more severe, such as panic attacks, catastrophic thinking, extreme fear, and substance abuse.
Below we’ve outlined some signs and symptoms of debilitating (or ‘crippling’) anxiety. If any of the following resonate with you or reflect your lived experience, it’s wise to seek the support of mental health professional.
- Avoidance of any social situations
- Heightened irritability, agitation, and easily provoked anger
- Chronic aches and pains, such as headaches, muscle pain, and bowel problems
- Frequent nausea, vomiting, digestive issues
- Insomnia, nightmares, trouble staying asleep, and other sleep issues
- Drastic, sudden weight change
- Strained relationships due to aggressive or paranoid behavior
- Substance misuse and abuse
- Frequently feeling overwhelmed by your duties and responsibilities
- Frequent panic attacks
- Thoughts of self-harm or suicide
- Cognitive issues – poor concentration, attention, and working memory
How to manage severe anxiety
If your anxiety is impacting your life in a way that jeopardizes your health – that includes your work and your relationships – then it’s vitally important to seek help. Although lifting, there is still a stigma attached to mental health support. For your own sake and the sake of those you love, let go of this stigma. Seeking support for your mental health is just as important as it is for your physical health. There is nothing shameful or weak about it, despite what you or others in your life might believe.
According to research, ‘anxiety disorders elevate the risk of developing other mental illnesses,’ so it’s wise to seek help and support as soon as possible. As mentioned earlier, some avoidance behaviors create their own problems that not only exacerbate a given anxiety disorder but also lead to other mental health issues that require treatment. Substance misuse can lead to dependence and addiction, which is progressive and can be fatal. Isolation can lead to feelings of loneliness, which is a common factor in depression and suicidality.
Below we’ve outlined some of the most commonly effective treatment options for all types of anxiety. The healing modalities below have all been proven effective and are components of individualized, client-centered treatment. Client-centered approaches to mental health are those which factor in the client’s life story, background, preferences, and unique experience. As such, they consider the client as a whole person, rather than just a set of symptoms to be ‘fixed,’ and incorporate a holistic approach to health and recovery.
CBT, DBT, and exposure therapy (ET) are all proven effective in treating anxiety disorders. The type of therapy used depends on your unique needs and preferences. A mental health provider will typically conduct an assessment and evaluation before prescribing a given form of therapy.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)
One of the most popular and effective treatment modalities for debilitating anxiety is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT is an evidence-based approach to psychotherapy in which clients are safely guided and supported in identifying thinking patterns, beliefs, and core values that are problematic and detrimental to their health and well-being.
In CBT, a trained therapist helps you understand and address the ‘cognitive triangle’ – the relationship between your thoughts, feelings, and behavior. They shed light on how the way you think elicits certain feelings and how these feelings lead to actions and behaviors that, in turn, create more thoughts and feelings.
Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT)
Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is another widely used and effective treatment approach for anxiety disorders. DBT borrows techniques from CBT, such as addressing the cognitive triangle and replacing unhealthy coping mechanisms with healthier approaches. DBT focuses heavily on emotional regulation, a key skill that helps those struggling with anxiety disorders learn techniques for self-management.
Exposure therapy (ET)
A third treatment option for debilitating anxiety is exposure therapy. Though all treatments should be carried out under the supervision and guidance of a professional, this is particularly true for exposure therapy. In this approach, clients are exposed to small but gradually increasing ‘doses’ of the object of their phobia. For example, a client struggling with social anxiety may enter a social situation in the company of their therapist. Afterward, the client and therapist discuss the experience. Over time, through gradual, safe exposure, the client’s fears and stress responses tend to reduce and dissipate.
In addition to therapy, many treatment providers can offer medical intervention for those struggling with crippling anxiety. There are a range of pharmacological treatments available and proven effective for anxiety disorders, including selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), and benzodiazepines.
The type of medication appropriate depends on you as an individual. Never take any medication without the prior consent and recommendation of a medical professional, Misuse of these medications can create more problems than they solve.
Several studies highlight the effectiveness of anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) medications. They can work wonders regarding symptoms management, helping those struggling get their symptoms under control enough to participate and cooperate effectively and productively in therapy.
In addition to conventional treatment – therapy and medication – we’re more likely to achieve real, lasting change when we learn and apply tools and techniques for self-management. Therapy and medication can help us manage symptoms and address the roots of our anxiety, but self-help techniques give us the power and autonomy to deal with and overcome our symptoms in day-to-day life.
Popular and proven effective anxiety self-help tips and techniques include:
- Deep breathing
- Relaxation and grounding techniques
- Balanced diet
- Regular exercise
- Support groups
- Vitamins for energy
Deep, diaphragmatic has consistently been proven to reduce the severity of anxiety and help those suffering overcome its symptoms. When we breathe deeply into the diaphragm, we signal to the body that we are safe. We open up the mechanics of anxiety and the body’s stress response by disengaging the sympathetic nervous system (the branch of the nervous system responsible for fight/flight) and engaging the parasympathetic nervous system, the branch involved in rest and digestion.
Grounding techniques, which include breathing, positive affirmations, mindfulness meditation, journaling, and mind-body practices (yoga, exercise, tai chi), help us cultivate present moment awareness- which reduces the power of rumination and anticipation, two common anxiety symptoms.
Though anxiety is a normal stress response, it becomes a problem when it persists. It’s often labeled as debilitating or crippling when it persists for so long and with such intensity that it prevents the person suffering from being able to function and enjoy their life.
The good news is that all anxiety disorders can be overcome. Treatment approaches vary based on your needs and preferences, and some may reap the benefits and overcome their anxiety sooner than others. As such, patience and consistency are critical factors in achieving positive outcomes in treatment.
If you feel that your anxiety has become debilitating, don’t hesitate to reach out for support. Professional treatment is available and effective. If you’re not yet comfortable with reaching out to a professional, then speak to a trusted friend or family member about your concerns. Understand that no matter how severe your anxiety, you can overcome it. It doesn’t have to define who you are, and you don’t have to resign to it.