The number of people diagnosed with mental disorders is said to be on the rise, globally. Researchers thus far have been unable to pinpoint the actual cause of mental illnesses. However, the following factors have been implicated: a variety of genetic, social and environmental factors that can contribute to mental illness such as inherited traits that cause a higher susceptibility to such disorders. Some of the most common affective mental disorders are depression and anxiety disorders. Although anxiety often accompanies depression, not everyone with depression experiences an anxiety disorder and vice versa. In commemoration of #MentalHealthMonth, the first of this series of articles will be dedicated to anxiety disorders and their probable impact on the lives of those affected.

Anxiety is a broad term often used when describing a variety of more specific, related disorders. It is believed that everybody suffers from anxiety from time to time, however, it only becomes pathological when it causes significant impairment in one or more spheres of an individual’s life.

Some of the most common of these disorders are; Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Panic Disorder, Phobias, Social Anxiety Disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

They are primarily characterised by symptoms of feeling restless, nervous or tense, a sense of impending danger, increased heart rate, hyperventilation, sweating, heart palpitations, and often troubles concentrating. Certainly, they differ in their severity but in order to warrant a diagnosis, the impact needs to cause significant impairment in one’s social, occupational and emotional functioning.

A short overview of the most common anxiety disorders:

Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) – characterised by having regular or uncontrollable worries about many different things in your everyday life.

Specific Phobias – a phobia is an extreme fear or anxiety triggered by a specific situation (such as social situations) or a particular object (such as spiders or height).

Social anxiety disorder – this is a specific type of phobia that presents with experiencing extreme fear or anxiety triggered by social situations (such as parties, workplaces, or any situation in which the individual needs to engage with another person).

Panic disorder –is an anxiety related disorder, where the individual has regular panic attacks without a clear cause or trigger.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – PTSD occurs after experiencing a distressing event. PTSD can be accompanied by invasive flashbacks or nightmares which can feel like an individual is re-living all the fear and anxiety they experienced during the actual event (often developed by veterans).

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) – individuals who suffer from OCD are plagued by repetitive thoughts, behaviours or urges.

People experiencing clinical anxiety are often hyper-vigilant, highly aware of their surroundings and often easily startled. Many people have general life concerns and feel fear and anxiety from time to time. This anxiety and fear become a mental health concern when you are unable to distinguish between real threats and imagined threats, thus ongoing signs and symptoms cause frequent stress and affect your ability to function at one’s optimum best.

Based on recent research, anxiety disorders are more prevalent among females (4.6% compared to 2.6% for males at the global level). While the proportion of the global population with anxiety disorders is estimated to be 3.6% (World Health Organization 2017).
Prevalence rates do not vary substantially between age groups but have steadily increased overall in the last 10-20 years.

According to the World Health Organization, most cases of anxiety disorders can be found in the South-East Asia Region closely followed by Regions of America and the Western Pacific Region. Whereas the Africa Region has the lowest percentage rate on that prevalence pie. Nevertheless, the prevalence of anxiety disorders is also on the rise in the African continent. Research insinuates that the low rate of mental disorders measured in the African Regions is perhaps not attributable to marvellous mental health but instead is a result of missing data caused by ignorance, superstition, stigma, and fear around mental illness. Furthermore, in most parts of the world anxiety disorders are frequently underdiagnosed and left untreated, unfortunately.

The good news is – there is hope for healing. While medication aims to manage the symptoms, which is important especially during the early stages of diagnosis to reach a state of stability and responsiveness.  Psychotherapy is also an effective treatment option. In cases of PTSD for example, therapy aims to work through the trauma and manage stressors to reduce the effect of the symptoms, manage relapse and promote positive overall mental health.

In order to make sure that those affected by anxiety disorders are able to access the necessary interventions, education and enlightenment are important aspects in that area as well as prevention programs.