Anxiety and Addiction

With progress in the mental health field, along with advancements in technology and medicine, the general public is now more informed about anxiety disorders than ever before. However, recent research indicates that there remains a significant number of undiagnosed cases of anxiety disorders. This article takes a deep dive into anxiety, giving valuable information to those seeking it, as well as advice on how to get help for anxiety disorders.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is a natural and adaptive response that humans experience in the face of stress or perceived threats. It is a complex emotional state characterised by feelings of apprehension, uneasiness, or worry. When confronted with a challenging or potentially dangerous situation, the body and mind go into a heightened state of alertness, preparing for a “fight or flight” response.

The experience of anxiety involves a cascade of physiological and psychological reactions. Physiologically, the body releases stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, which increase heart rate, elevate blood pressure and sharpen sensory perception. This physiological response is designed to enhance the individual’s ability to respond effectively to the perceived threat.

From a psychological perspective, anxiety often involves a cognitive component, such as excessive worrying, fear of the unknown, or anticipation of negative outcomes. This mental aspect of anxiety can vary in intensity and duration, and it may manifest as restlessness, irritability, or difficulty concentrating.

Why do we experience anxiety?

In the early stages of humankind, anxiety served as a survival mechanism. It helped our ancestors navigate and respond to potential dangers in their environment. When faced with threats, anxiety triggers the necessary physiological changes to enhance their chances of survival. In modern times, the stressors triggering anxiety have evolved, but the underlying adaptive function of preparing the body and mind for action remains.

What is anxiety disorder?

Anxiety disorder is a broad term that encompasses various mental health conditions characterised by excessive worry, fear, or apprehension. It involves a persistent and often irrational fear or anxiety that can significantly interfere with a person’s daily life.

How can I tell the difference between ‘normal’ anxiety and anxiety disorder?

Distinguishing between normal anxiety and an anxiety disorder involves considering the intensity, duration and impact of the symptoms on your daily life. Here are some key differences:

Aspect Normal Anxiety Anxiety Disorder
Intensity of symptoms Occasional, proportional to the situation Disproportionate, excessive and hard to control
Duration of symptoms Short-lived, resolves with the end of stressor Persistent, lasting six months or more
Impact on daily life Mild discomfort, doesn’t significantly impair Interferes with work, relationships and daily activities
Physical symptoms Common and transient (e.g., increased heart rate) May be severe, persistent, leading to chronic issues
Triggers Often in response to stressors or challenges May occur without clear triggers or be excessive
Functionality Doesn’t significantly impair daily functioning Impaired social, occupational, or academic functioning

Keep in mind that while this table provides a general overview, it’s crucial to seek guidance from a mental health specialist for a comprehensive assessment personalised to your or a loved one’s specific situation.

Are there different types of anxiety disorders?

While it’s possible to experience anxiety in various situations, the DSM-5 classifies 11 distinct anxiety disorders within its ‘Anxiety Disorders’ section. Below, we examine some of the most prevalent among these anxiety disorders.

Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
Individuals with GAD experience excessive and uncontrollable worry about various aspects of their lives, such as work, relationships, health and everyday situations. The worry is often disproportionate to the actual events.
Panic disorder
This involves recurring and unexpected panic attacks, which are intense periods of fear or discomfort that reach a peak within minutes. Panic attacks can be accompanied by physical symptoms such as rapid heartbeat, sweating, trembling and a sense of impending doom.
Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD)
People with social anxiety disorder have an intense fear of social situations and fear of being judged or embarrassed in public. This can lead to avoidance of social interactions, impacting personal and professional life aspects.
Specific phobias
These encompass intense fears related to specific objects, situations, or activities. Typical phobias include fear of heights, spiders, flying, or enclosed spaces. Those with specific phobias often take significant measures to evade the stimuli that provoke their fear.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
OCD is characterised by intrusive, unwanted thoughts (obsessions) and repetitive behaviours or mental acts (compulsions) performed in response to the obsessions. The rituals are intended to reduce anxiety but are often not connected to the feared event in a realistic way.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
PTSD can develop after exposure to a traumatic event. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares, intrusive thoughts and heightened anxiety related to the traumatic experience.

Anxiety disorder statistics in the United Kingdom

According to the mental health charity, MIND, on any given week in England:

  • 6 out of 100 will be diagnosed with GAD
  • 4 out of 100 people will be diagnosed with PTSD
  • 2 out of every 100 will be diagnosed with Specific Phobias
  • 1 in 100 individuals will be diagnosed with OCD
  • Slightly less than 1 in 100 will be diagnosed with Panic Disorder

Due to certain factors in their studies being excluded from the final results, MIND estimates that the actual number is significantly higher than what was initially reported.

What is the cause of anxiety disorder?

Anxiety disorders can arise from a combination of genetic, biological, environmental and psychological factors. It’s important to note that each individual may have a unique set of contributing factors, and the exact cause of anxiety disorders can vary. Here are some common factors associated with the development of anxiety disorders:


There is evidence that a family history of anxiety disorders or other mental health conditions can increase the risk of developing anxiety. Certain genes may play a role in predisposing individuals to anxiety.

Brain chemistry

Neurotransmitters, which are chemical messengers in the brain, play a crucial role in regulating mood and emotions. An imbalance in neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine, may contribute to anxiety disorders.

Personality and temperament

Certain personality traits, such as a tendency to be perfectionistic, easily overwhelmed, or highly sensitive, may be associated with a higher risk of developing anxiety disorders.

Environmental factors

Stressful life events, trauma, abuse, or significant changes in life circumstances (such as moving, changing jobs, or going through a major life transition) can trigger or exacerbate anxiety disorders.

Physical health

Chronic medical conditions, particularly those that affect the nervous system, can contribute to anxiety. Additionally, those dealing with addiction, substance abuse or withdrawal from certain drugs could experience anxiety symptoms.

Brain structure and function

Abnormalities in the structure or function of certain areas of the brain, such as the amygdala and hippocampus, which are involved in the regulation of emotions and stress responses, may be linked to anxiety disorders.

Cognitive factors

Negative thought patterns, irrational beliefs and distorted thinking can contribute to anxiety. Individuals with anxiety disorders may perceive situations as more threatening than they actually are.

Do anxiety disorders ever go away?

Anxiety disorders can be treated effectively, and many people experience significant improvement or complete resolution of their symptoms with appropriate treatment. While the specific course of recovery varies from person to person, it’s important to know that recovery is possible.

The challenge with anxiety disorders lies in the fact that a significant number of cases remain undiagnosed. This could result from individuals not recognising the signs and symptoms of anxiety, downplaying the severity of the symptoms, or facing generational issues, particularly among those who may be unaware of the progress in the field of mental health.

How are anxiety disorders diagnosed?

The process of diagnosing and assessing anxiety disorders adopts a comprehensive approach, often involving collaboration among various healthcare professionals, including psychologists, psychiatrists and primary care providers. The evaluation encompasses several components:

  • Clinical interviews: These interviews consist of a series of inquiries about the individual’s medical history and the nature, severity, and duration of their symptoms. The goal is to comprehensively understand the person’s experiences and how these symptoms impact their daily life.
  • Psychological testing: Following the clinical interviews, psychological tests are employed to evaluate an individual’s symptoms and cognitive function. This aids in establishing a precise diagnosis based on a thorough assessment.
  • Physical examinations: In some cases, physical examinations are integrated into the diagnostic process to rule out any underlying physical health conditions that may contribute to or worsen anxiety symptoms. This may involve blood tests to examine potential issues like hormone imbalances or thyroid problems, which can manifest with symptoms resembling anxiety disorders.
  • Differential diagnosis: Conducting a differential diagnosis is crucial to differentiate anxiety disorders from other psychiatric conditions that share similar symptoms, such as depressive disorders or bipolar disorders. This meticulous elimination process helps pinpoint the primary cause of the observed symptoms.

Once a diagnosis has been made, it then allows for treatment to begin.

How are anxiety disorders treated?

Treating anxiety can involve a combination of therapy and medications, but many anxiety treatment courses will opt for holistic healing first. In some anxiety treatment centres, you could expect the programme to be split up into different sections, like the example below:

First phase

In the initial phase of anxiety treatment, the primary goal is to empower you with the skills to soothe your nervous system and effectively alleviate symptoms of anxiety. The approach involves incorporating a variety of relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, mindfulness meditation and activities like yoga. Therapeutic sessions that focus on Cognitive-Behavioural Techniques (CBT) and Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) play a pivotal role in helping you recognise and challenge anxious thoughts.

Second phase

The connection phase involves you delving into your inner self to gain a deeper understanding of the root causes of your anxiety. This stage entails exploring feelings and emotions, raising awareness of anxiety triggers and promoting self-compassion. By building a profound connection with yourself and others, you are better equipped to address the underlying factors contributing to their anxiety.

Third phase

The final stage, cultivate, focuses on developing positive habits and establishing a lifestyle conducive to long-term recovery. This involves building resilience by nurturing strengths and skills rather than focusing on weaknesses. This phase encourages healthy practices such as proper nutrition, regular physical activity and sufficient sleep to support overall well-being.

What are the next steps?

Anxiety is a treatable condition, and with the right approach and treatment methods, it’s possible to overcome it. We acknowledge that reaching out for help can be challenging, but it’s important to know that there is a life beyond anxiety. With the support of medical professionals, you can reclaim your life and navigate through this difficult period. Remember, you don’t have to face it alone—help is available, and there is hope for a brighter future without anxiety.

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Can addiction lead to anxiety, even in recovery?
Yes, addiction recovery can be accompanied by anxiety. The process of overcoming addiction often involves significant life changes, fear of relapse and addressing underlying issues. These challenges may contribute to anxiety even during recovery. Ongoing support, therapy, and coping strategies are crucial to managing anxiety in addiction recovery.
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