The Surgeon General's Report on Mental Health
The anxiety disorders are the most common, or frequently occurring, mental disorders. They encompass a group of conditions that share extreme or pathological anxiety as the principal disturbance of mood or emotional tone. Anxiety, which may be understood as the pathological counterpart of normal fear, is manifest by disturbances of mood, as well as of thinking, behavior, and physiological activity.
The anxiety disorders include panic disorder (with and without a history of agoraphobia), agoraphobia (with and without a history of panic disorder), generalized anxiety disorder, specific phobia, social phobia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, acute stress disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (DSM-IV). In addition, there are adjustment disorders with anxious features, anxiety disorders due to general medical conditions, substance-induced anxiety disorders, and the residual category of anxiety disorder not otherwise specified (DSM-IV).
Anxiety disorders not only are common in the United States, but they are ubiquitous across human cultures (Regier et al., 1993; Kessler et al., 1994; Weissman et al., 1997). In the United States, 1-year prevalence for all anxiety disorders among adults ages 18 to 54 exceeds 16 percent (Table 4-1), and there is significant overlap or comorbidity with mood and substance abuse disorders (Regier et al., 1990; Goldberg & Lecrubier, 1995; Magee et al., 1996). The longitudinal course of these disorders is characterized by relatively early ages of onset, chronicity, relapsing or recurrent episodes of illness, and periods of disability (Keller & Hanks, 1994; Gorman & Coplan, 1996; Liebowitz, 1997; Marcus et al., 1997). Although few psychological autopsy studies of adult suicides have included a focus on comorbid conditions (Conwell & Brent, 1995), it is likely that the rate of comorbid anxiety in suicide is underestimated. Panic disorder and agoraphobia, particularly, are associated with increased risks of attempted suicide (Hornig & McNally, 1995; American Psychiatric Association, 1998).
Panic Attacks and Panic Disorder
A panic attack is a discrete period of intense fear or discomfort that is associated with numerous somatic and cognitive symptoms (DSM-IV). These symptoms include palpitations, sweating, trembling, shortness of breath, sensations of choking or smothering, chest pain, nausea or gastrointestinal distress, dizziness or lightheadedness, tingling sensations, and chills or blushing and hot flashes. The attack typically has an abrupt onset, building to maximum intensity within 10 to 15 minutes. Most people report a fear of dying, going crazy, or losing control of emotions or behavior. The experiences generally provoke a strong urge to escape or flee the place where the attack begins and, when associated with chest pain or shortness of breath, frequently results in seeking aid from a hospital emergency room or other type of urgent assistance. Yet an attack rarely lasts longer than 30 minutes. Current diagnostic practice specifies that a panic attack must be characterized by at least four of the associated somatic and cognitive symptoms described above. The panic attack is distinguished from other forms of anxiety by its intensity and its sudden, episodic nature. Panic attacks may be further characterized by the relationship between the onset of the attack and the presence or absence of situational factors. For example, a panic attack may be described as unexpected, situationally bound, or situationally predisposed (usually, but not invariably occurring in a particular situation). There are also attenuated or limited symptom forms of panic attacks.
Panic attacks are not always indicative of a mental disorder, and up to 10 percent of otherwise healthy people experience an isolated panic attack per year (Barlow, 1988; Klerman et al., 1991). Panic attacks also are not limited to panic disorder. They commonly occur in the course of social phobia, generalized anxiety disorder, and major depressive disorder (DSM-IV).
Panic disorder is diagnosed when a person has experienced at least two unexpected panic attacks and develops persistent concern or worry about having further attacks or changes his or her behavior to avoid or minimize such attacks. Whereas the number and severity of the attacks varies widely, the concern and avoidance behavior are essential features. The diagnosis is inapplicable when the attacks are presumed to be caused by a drug or medication or a general medical disorder, such as hyperthyroidism.
Lifetime rates of panic disorder of 2 to 4 percent and 1-year rates of about 2 percent are documented consistently in epidemiological studies (Kessler et al., 1994; Weissman et al., 1997) (Table 4-1). Panic disorder is frequently complicated by major depressive disorder (50 to 65 percent lifetime comorbidity rates) and alcoholism and substance abuse disorders (20 to 30 percent comorbidity) (Keller & Hanks, 1994; Magee et al., 1996; Liebowitz, 1997). Panic disorder is also concomitantly diagnosed, or co-occurs, with other specific anxiety disorders, including social phobia (up to 30 percent), generalized anxiety disorder (up to 25 percent), specific phobia (up to 20 percent), and obsessive-compulsive disorder (up to 10 percent) (DSM-IV). As discussed subsequently, approximately one-half of people with panic disorder at some point develop such severe avoidance as to warrant a separate description, panic disorder with agoraphobia.
Panic disorder is about twice as common among women as men (American Psychiatric Association, 1998). Age of onset is most common between late adolescence and midadult life, with onset relatively uncommon past age 50. There is developmental continuity between the anxiety syndromes of youth, such as separation anxiety disorder. Typically, an early age of onset of panic disorder carries greater risks of comorbidity, chronicity, and impairment. Panic disorder is a familial condition and can be distinguished from depressive disorders by family studies (Rush et al., 1998).
The ancient term agoraphobia is translated from Greek as fear of an open marketplace. Agoraphobia today describes severe and pervasive anxiety about being in situations from which escape might be difficult or avoidance of situations such as being alone outside of the home, traveling in a car, bus, or airplane, or being in a crowded area (DSM-IV).
Most people who present to mental health specialists develop agoraphobia after the onset of panic disorder (American Psychiatric Association, 1998). Agoraphobia is best understood as an adverse behavioral outcome of repeated panic attacks and the subsequent worry, preoccupation, and avoidance (Barlow, 1988). Thus, the formal diagnosis of panic disorder with agoraphobia was established. However, for those people in communities or clinical settings who do not meet full criteria for panic disorder, the formal diagnosis of agoraphobia without history of panic disorder is used (DSM-IV).
The 1-year prevalence of agoraphobia is about 5 percent (Table 4-1). Agoraphobia occurs about two times more commonly among women than men (Magee et al., 1996). The gender difference may be attributable to social-cultural factors that encourage, or permit, the greater expression of avoidant coping strategies by women (DSM-IV), although other explanations are possible.
These common conditions are characterized by marked fear of specific objects or situations (DSM-IV). Exposure to the object of the phobia, either in real life or via imagination or video, invariably elicits intense anxiety, which may include a (situationally bound) panic attack. Adults generally recognize that this intense fear is irrational. Nevertheless, they typically avoid the phobic stimulus or endure exposure with great difficulty. The most common specific phobias include the following feared stimuli or situations: animals (especially snakes, rodents, birds, and dogs); insects (especially spiders and bees or hornets); heights; elevators; flying; automobile driving; water; storms; and blood or injections.
Approximately 8 percent of the adult population suffers from one or more specific phobias in 1 year (Table 4-1). Much higher rates would be recorded if less rigorous diagnostic requirements for avoidance or functional impairment were employed. Typically, the specific phobias begin in childhood, although there is a second peak of onset in the middle 20s of adulthood (DSM-IV). Most phobias persist for years or even decades, and relatively few remit spontaneously or without treatment.
The specific phobias generally do not result from exposure to a single traumatic event (i.e., being bitten by a dog or nearly drowning) (Marks, 1969). Rather, there is evidence of phobia in other family members and social or vicarious learning of phobias (Cook & Mineka, 1989). Spontaneous, unexpected panic attacks also appear to play a role in the development of specific phobia, although the particular pattern of avoidance is much more focal and circumscribed.
Social phobia, also known as social anxiety disorder, describes people with marked and persistent anxiety in social situations, including performances and public speaking (Ballenger et al., 1998). The critical element of the fearfulness is the possibility of embarrassment or ridicule. Like specific phobias, the fear is recognized by adults as excessive or unreasonable, but the dreaded social situation is avoided or is tolerated with great discomfort. Many people with social phobia are preoccupied with concerns that others will see their anxiety symptoms (i.e., trembling, sweating, or blushing); or notice their halting or rapid speech; or judge them to be weak, stupid, or crazy. Fears of fainting, losing control of bowel or bladder function, or having ones mind going blank are also not uncommon. Social phobias generally are associated with significant anticipatory anxiety for days or weeks before the dreaded event, which in turn may further handicap performance and heighten embarrassment.
The 1-year prevalence of social phobia ranges from 2 to 7 percent (Table 4-1), although the lower figure probably better captures the number of people who experience significant impairment and distress. Social phobia is more common in women (Wells et al., 1994). Social phobia typically begins in childhood or adolescence and, for many, it is associated with the traits of shyness and social inhibition (Kagan et al., 1988). A public humiliation, severe embarrassment, or other stressful experience may provoke an intensification of difficulties (Barlow, 1988). Once the disorder is established, complete remissions are uncommon without treatment. More commonly, the severity of symptoms and impairments tends to fluctuate in relation to vocational demands and the stability of social relationships. Preliminary data suggest social phobia to be familial (Rush et al., 1998).
Generalized Anxiety Disorder
Generalized anxiety disorder is defined by a protracted (> 6 months duration) period of anxiety and worry, accompanied by multiple associated symptoms (DSM-IV). These symptoms include muscle tension, easy fatiguability, poor concentration, insomnia, and irritability. In youth, the condition is known as overanxious disorder of childhood. In DSM-IV, an essential feature of generalized anxiety disorder is that the anxiety and worry cannot be attributable to the more focal distress of panic disorder, social phobia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or other conditions. Rather, as implied by the name, the excessive worries often pertain to many areas, including work, relationships, finances, the well-being of ones family, potential misfortunes, and impending deadlines. Somatic anxiety symptoms are common, as are sporadic panic attacks.
Generalized anxiety disorder occurs more often in women, with a sex ratio of about 2 women to 1 man (Brawman-Mintzer & Lydiard, 1996). The 1-year population prevalence is about 3 percent (Table 4-1). Approximately 50 percent of cases begin in childhood or adolescence. The disorder typically runs a fluctuating course, with periods of increased symptoms usually associated with life stress or impending difficulties. There does not appear to be a specific familial association for general anxiety disorder. Rather, rates of other mood and anxiety disorders typically are greater among first-degree relatives of people with generalized anxiety disorder (Kendler et al., 1987).
Obsessions are recurrent, intrusive thoughts, impulses, or images that are perceived as inappropriate, grotesque, or forbidden (DSM-IV). The obsessions, which elicit anxiety and marked distress, are termed ego-alien or ego-dystonic because their content is quite unlike the thoughts that the person usually has. Obsessions are perceived as uncontrollable, and the sufferer often fears that he or she will lose control and act upon such thoughts or impulses. Common themes include contamination with germs or body fluids, doubts (i.e., the worry that something important has been overlooked or that the sufferer has unknowingly inflicted harm on someone), order or symmetry, or loss of control of violent or sexual impulses.
Compulsions are repetitive behaviors or mental acts that reduce the anxiety that accompanies an obsession or prevent some dreaded event from happening (DSM-IV). Compulsions include both overt behaviors, such as hand washing or checking, and mental acts including counting or praying. Not uncommonly, compulsive rituals take up long periods of time, even hours, to complete. For example, repeated hand washing, intended to remedy anxiety about contamination, is a common cause of contact dermatitis.
Although once thought to be rare, obsessive-compulsive disorder has now been documented to have a 1-year prevalence of 2.4 percent (Table 4-1). Obsessive-compulsive disorder is equally common among men and women.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder typically begins in adolescence to young adult life (males) or in young adult life (females) (Burke et al., 1990; DSM-IV). For most, the course is fluctuating and, like generalized anxiety disorder, symptom exacerbations are usually associated with life stress. Common comorbidities include major depressive disorder and other anxiety disorders. Approximately 20 to 30 percent of people in clinical samples with obsessive-compulsive disorder report a past history of tics, and about one-quarter of these people meet the full criteria for Tourettes disorder (DSM-IV). Conversely, up to 50 percent of people with Tourettes disorder develop obsessive-compulsive disorder (Pitman et al., 1987).
Obsessive-compulsive disorder has a clear familial pattern and somewhat greater familial specificity than most other anxiety disorders. Furthermore, there is an increased risk of obsessive-compulsive disorder among first-degree relatives with Tourettes disorder. Other mental disorders that may fall within the spectrum of obsessive-compulsive disorder include trichotillomania (compulsive hair pulling), compulsive shoplifting, gambling, and sexual behavior disorders (Hollander, 1996). The latter conditions are somewhat discrepant because the compulsive behaviors are less ritualistic and yield some outcomes that are pleasurable or gratifying. Body dysmorphic disorder is a more circumscribed condition in which the compulsive and obsessive behavior centers around a preoccupation with ones appearance (i.e., the syndrome of imagined ugliness) (Phillips, 1991).
Acute and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders
Acute stress disorder refers to the anxiety and behavioral disturbances that develop within the first month after exposure to an extreme trauma. Generally, the symptoms of an acute stress disorder begin during or shortly following the trauma. Such extreme traumatic events include rape or other severe physical assault, near-death experiences in accidents, witnessing a murder, and combat. The symptom of dissociation, which reflects a perceived detachment of the mind from the emotional state or even the body, is a critical feature. Dissociation also is characterized by a sense of the world as a dreamlike or unreal place and may be accompanied by poor memory of the specific events, which in severe form is known as dissociative amnesia. Other features of an acute stress disorder include symptoms of generalized anxiety and hyperarousal, avoidance of situations or stimuli that elicit memories of the trauma, and persistent, intrusive recollections of the event via flashbacks, dreams, or recurrent thoughts or visual images.
If the symptoms and behavioral disturbances of the acute stress disorder persist for more than 1 month, and if these features are associated with functional impairment or significant distress to the sufferer, the diagnosis is changed to post-traumatic stress disorder. Post-traumatic stress disorder is further defined in DSM-IV as having three subforms: acute1 (< 3 months duration), chronic (> 3 months duration), and delayed onset (symptoms began at least 6 months after exposure to the trauma).
By virtue of the more sustained nature of post-traumatic stress disorder (relative to acute stress disorder), a number of changes, including decreased self-esteem, loss of sustained beliefs about people or society, hopelessness, a sense of being permanently damaged, and difficulties in previously established relationships, are typically observed. Substance abuse often develops, especially involving alcohol, marijuana, and sedative-hypnotic drugs.
About 50 percent of cases of post-traumatic stress disorder remit within 6 months. For the remainder, the disorder typically persists for years and can dominate the sufferers life. A longitudinal study of Vietnam veterans, for example, found 15 percent of veterans to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder 19 years after combat exposure (cited in McFarlane & Yehuda, 1996). In the general population, the 1-year prevalence is about 3.6 percent, with women having almost twice the prevalence of men (Kessler et al., 1995) (Table 4-1). The highest rates of post-traumatic stress disorder are found among women who are victims of crime, especially rape, as well as among torture and concentration camp survivors (Yehuda, 1999). Overall, among those exposed to extreme trauma, about 9 percent develop post-traumatic stress disorder (Breslau et al., 1998).
1 The acute subform of post-traumatic stress disorder is distinct from acute stress disorder because the latter resolves by the end of the first month, whereas the former persists until 3 months. If the condition persists after 3 months duration, the diagnosis is again changed to the chronic post-traumatic stress disorder subform (DSM-IV).