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Getting a grip on anxieties during the holidays

It's normal to worry from time to time, but a quarter of Americans suffer from some form of anxiety disorder at one point in their lives. For these people, excessive anxiety can dramatically affect their quality of life, especially during the holidays, when added stresses can trigger an increase in panic attacks or acute social anxiety.

Mental health specialists with U-M Health System (UMHS) encourage people to slow down and enjoy the holiday season, and for those individuals suffering from anxiety disorders to seek professional help. But how can people tell when their state of high anxiety is such that they need professional help?

According to Joseph Himle, associate director of the U-M Anxiety Disorders Program, anxiety of a clinical nature hinges on how much it interferes with activities of everyday life. Anxiety disorders people commonly seek treatment for fall into several groups: generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder and social anxiety disorder.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder

People with generalized anxiety disorder have difficulty controlling their worry. Also, the disorder comes with other problems or symptoms, such as sleeping difficulties; feeling tense, keyed up or on edge; or having problems with concentration or irritability.

Panic Disorder

This is a condition characterized by sudden, unexpected surges of intense anxiety and fear. Often when people experience panic attacks, they have several physical symptoms that don't make sense for the situation they're in. These symptoms can include rapid heart rate, difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, chest pain or discomfort, shakiness, sweating, dizziness, even a feeling that things don't seem quite real. Panic attacks commonly last a few minutes, coming on suddenly and going away fairly quickly.

About a third of the population will experience an attack of anxiety at some point that makes no sense. Most people would dismiss it and probably never would have another episode. Those with panic disorders have a different reaction, however, and often characterize the experience as threatening or something to be afraid of.

"When the panic attacks increase in frequency and begin to interfere with a person's life, that signals panic disorder, a condition that often requires treatment," says Himle, who also is a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry.

Social Anxiety Disorder

Social phobias are a common type of anxiety disorder, affecting approximately 13 percent of the population at some point in their liveswomen only slightly more than men. "Social anxiety is really centered around a fear that people are evaluating you in a negative way or judging you in an unflattering way," Himle says.

Many people with social anxiety disorder find themselves isolated and depressed, and feel the disorder has made a substantial impact on their well-being.

"I think a gift we can all give ourselves during the holiday season is to take a little more time for rest, relaxation, satisfaction, and to use this time to think about getting help if social anxiety, panic disorder or generalized anxiety are interfering with life," Himle says. "We have treatments that are available for these conditions, and using the holidays to reflect and redirect our life in a more positive direction clearly makes sense."

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