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Debilitating Anxiety

Debilitating anxiety refers to irrational feelings of fear that become severe enough to interfere with a person’s ability to accomplish everyday tasks and cope with common life situations. It isn’t a diagnosis but a symptom itself and can encompass various physical, emotional and behavioral traits.

Last Modified: September 27, 2023
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When Can Anxiety Become Debilitating?

It’s normal to feel some amount of anxiety in response to an intense situation, but when the anxiety is constant and leaves the individual unable to live a healthy life, it becomes debilitating.

A person may have uncomfortable physical symptoms of anxiety no matter where they are, prompting them to avoid leaving their home at all. When anxiety reaches this point, it can interfere with an individual’s ability to maintain healthy personal and professional relationships.

Anxiety is one of the most common mental health conditions. It’s important that anyone who experiences symptoms causing them distress schedule an appointment with their doctor to discuss treatment options. Someone who has debilitating anxiety is also at an increased risk for developing another mental health disorder such as depression, making the need to seek treatment essential.

Types of Anxiety

Anxiety is one of the most common mental health disorders and comes in different forms. Many people experience anxiety when under stress. Mild anxiety is often a useful tool to alert the body to potential danger. However, a person who has excessive anxiety that interrupts daily life may have an anxiety disorder.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, or DSM-5, includes the following types of diagnosable anxiety disorders:
  • Agoraphobia
  • Comorbid anxiety (anxiety disorder because of another medical condition)
  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • Other specified anxiety disorder
  • Panic disorder
  • Selective mutism
  • Separation anxiety disorder
  • Social anxiety disorder
  • Specific phobia
  • Substance/medication induced anxiety
  • Unspecified anxiety disorder

Anxiety disorder symptoms range from mild to severe. Some patients are able to manage their condition with the help of treatment so that it has little impact on their daily lives. Panic disorder, agoraphobia, selective mutism and other serious symptoms can become debilitating and prevent the individual from functioning optimally in their day-to-day life.

Debilitating anxiety can cause people to avoid certain situations out of fear of triggering a panic attack or other symptoms. They may become overwhelmed and start to withdraw from social situations and necessary tasks such as going to the grocery store or even attending work.

Acute Symptoms That Contribute to Debilitating Anxiety

Anxiety symptoms may fluctuate in severity. They can be mild at times and acute at others. Oftentimes an external variable or trigger exacerbates symptoms, causing them to become debilitating.

Common symptoms of anxiety are:
  • Chest pain
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Fatigue
  • Fear of dying
  • Feeling detached from the environment
  • Feeling out of control
  • Feelings of dread or impending doom
  • Heightened vigilance
  • Irritability
  • Muscle tension
  • Racing heart
  • Restlessness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating
  • Tingling or trembling
  • Trouble sleeping

People with anxiety may experience any combination of the above symptoms, along with other physical, mental and behavioral symptoms. Many people describe debilitating anxiety as intense fear or dread, often about common, everyday tasks. They might worry excessively over everything, making it difficult to function.

Anxiety can persist for months to years. In some people, it’s a lifelong condition that requires ongoing management. Individual bouts of anxiety may last for a few days or until the triggering event or situation is dealt with. A panic attack can last, on average, from just a few seconds to 20 minutes.

What Can Trigger Severe Anxiety?

Traumatic or stressful life events may cause a person to experience severe anxiety. In addition, medications such as antihistamines, acetaminophen and corticosteroids can trigger anxiety. Some medical conditions, especially those that cause long-term or chronic pain, such as arthritis, can also lead to anxiety.

Growing up with anxious parents or with a feeling of not being safe is an environmental factor that can lead to anxiety. Some people’s genes predispose them to the condition, which can run in families. In these people, DNA methylation, which is a biochemical process, causes the genes to alter because of air quality, diet, sleeping habits, stress levels and other environmental factors, leading to anxiety.

Facing stressors is part of the human condition, but the age in which we live doesn’t necessarily allow for the natural response of “fight or flight.” Often people are placed in stressful situations where there is no easy out. In those circumstances, internal coping mechanisms are essential.

Treating Anxiety Disorders and Managing Severe Symptoms

Individuals coping with anxiety have several effective treatment options to pursue. The first step is to see a doctor for a diagnosis and treatment recommendations that address the person’s unique combination of symptoms. Most people respond well to medications, talk therapy or both. Medications can provide symptom relief while various therapy types teach coping methods and help get to the root of the anxiety to change patterns of thoughts and behaviors.

Along with these traditional methods of treatment, some people find it beneficial to add one or more supplemental therapies to their anxiety management plan. Practices such as yoga, tai chi, meditation and deep breathing can complement prescribed treatments. Creative therapies such as art and music also help patients to relax and process difficult emotions.

Therapy Options

Talk therapy includes a range of options that assist people with finding effective coping mechanisms and management tactics to lessen or eliminate the symptoms of debilitating anxiety. Therapy helps patients learn how to understand their anxiety and the thoughts and behaviors that contribute to it. This is crucial to learning how to change unhelpful patterns and finding relief from symptoms.

The right approach to psychotherapy depends on the type of anxiety disorder the patient has, along with the severity of symptoms and their personal preferences. Together, the doctor and patient can identify specific anxiety triggers, discuss concerns and develop skills for the patient to manage symptoms in real-life situations.

Therapies for anxiety include:

A doctor may recommend multiple approaches, such as group therapy or family therapy, alongside individual psychotherapy. These techniques help the person access support and learn how to interact with others effectively.

Modern technology makes it easier than ever before to get therapy. Those who are unable to attend in-personal therapy or simply prefer virtual therapy can get the same quality of care from the comfort of their own homes or another safe space via phone and video calls. Most patients notice an improvement in symptoms after therapy sessions.

Medication Options

Anxiety disorders are highly treatable. Many people have great success from talk therapy alone. Others do best with medications. It typically takes two to six weeks for these to take effect.

Antidepressants for anxiety disorders fall into four major classes. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRI medications, help to increase serotonin levels. Serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors help improve communication in the brain by working on neurotransmitters. Tricyclic antidepressants are an older class of drug and block the reuptake of serotonin and norepinephrine.

The top prescription drugs from these three classes include:
  • Celexa
  • Cymbalta
  • Effexor
  • Elavil
  • Lexapro
  • Luvox
  • Pamelor
  • Paxil
  • Prozac
  • Tofranil
  • Zoloft

The fourth class is benzodiazepines. These are sedative medications that work quickly to help a person relax during times of severe anxiety like a panic attack.

Common benzodiazepines are:
  • Ativan
  • Klonopin
  • Librium
  • Valium
  • Xanax

People with debilitating anxiety must make an appointment with a licensed medical professional, either a primary care physician or a psychiatrist, to receive a diagnosis and prescription for medication. It’s essential for patients to inform their doctor of all prescriptions and over-the-counter medications they currently take and to discuss possible side effects of any new anti-anxiety medications with their doctor or pharmacist.

Please seek the advice of a medical professional before making health care decisions.