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Anxiety Disorders

Most Common U.S. Mental Illness


NIMH Launches Anxiety Disorders Education Program

October 1996

"Stressed out," "anxious," and "out of control" are words commonly used to describe life in today's fast-paced world. But more than 23 million Americans with anxiety disorders face much more than just "normal" stress. Instead, their lives are filled with overwhelming anxiety and fear that are chronic, unremitting, and grow progressively worse when left untreated. Tormented by panic attacks, obsessive thoughts, flashbacks, nightmares, or countless frightening physical symptoms, some people with anxiety disorders even become housebound.

Today, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) launched the Anxiety Disorders Education Program to help people recognize and find treatment for obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, phobias, and generalized anxiety disorder. At a media briefing in Washington, D.C., NIMH Director Steven E. Hyman, M.D., said tremendous advances in the understanding and treatment of these debilitating mental illnesses are emerging from research on brain disorders.

"Anxiety disorders, like other mental illnesses, reflect dysfunctions within the brain. We are beginning to understand the specific circuits in the brain that underlie post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and perhaps panic disorder. We are on the path to discovering genes that make people vulnerable to anxiety disorders," Hyman said. "Already, the fruits of research have resulted in the development of effective treatments for millions of Americans living with these illnesses, but the promise for the future is even greater."

According to Hyman, most people with anxiety disorders, depression or other mental illnesses face great difficulty receiving appropriate treatment due to widespread lack of understanding and stigma. "Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illnesses in America, yet many people who have them are suffering in silence and secrecy, inappropriately ashamed or unaware of the availability of excellent treatments," Hyman said. "People are hungering for information, as shown by the thousands who attend national anxiety and depression screening days and call NIMH and other groups for information."

Through education programs such as this one, Hyman said, NIMH can communicate research findings and help the public and their health care professionals recognize that these are real medical illnesses that can be effectively diagnosed and treated. Effective treatments for anxiety disorders include medication, specific forms of psychotherapy (known as behavioral therapy and cognitive-behavioral therapy), or a combination, Hyman said.

The Anxiety Disorders Education Program will build upon NIMH's previous education efforts through the Panic Disorder Education Program and the Depression/Awareness, Recognition and Treatment (D/ART) program, which together have reached millions of people with information about panic disorder and depression. The program, which will target members of the public, primary care and other medical professionals, and mental health professionals, will incorporate messages about the major anxiety disorders and their co-occurrence with depression, alcohol and drug abuse, and other mental disorders.

Strategies in the new program will be based upon extensive audience research with people with anxiety disorders, their families, and health professionals, and incorporate the theme line, "Anxiety Disorders. Frightening. Real. Treatable." Educational components will include media relations, public service announcements, partnerships with professional and voluntary organizations, worksite education, professional seminars and exhibits, an NIMH anxiety disorders Web site, and outreach to minorities and youth.

Brief Facts About Anxiety Disorders:

Panic Disorder - Characterized by panic attacks, sudden feelings of terror that strike repeatedly and without warning. Physical symptoms include chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, dizziness, abdominal discomfort, feelings of unreality, and fear of dying.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder - Repeated, intrusive and unwanted thoughts or rituals that seem impossible to control.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder - Persistent symptoms that occur after undergoing a traumatic experience such as war, rape, child abuse, natural disasters or crashes. Nightmares, flashbacks, numbing of emotions, depression and feeling angry, irritable, distracted and being easily startled are common.

Phobias - Extreme, disabling and irrational fear of something that really poses little or no actual danger; the fear leads to avoidance of objects or situations and can cause people to limit their lives.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder - Chronic, exaggerated worry about everyday routine life events and activities, lasting at least six months. Almost always anticipating the worst even though there is little reason to expect it; accompanied by physical symptoms, such as fatigue, trembling, muscle tension, headache, or nausea.