Pathological anxiety: Definition, causes, and symptoms – Medical News Today

Anxiety can be intense and persistent that it becomes a disabling condition for some people. When feelings of anxiety become overwhelming and extreme, it can mean an individual is experiencing pathological anxiety.
Anxiety is a feeling of worry, unease, or nervousness that varies from mild to severe. Anxiety is a typical reaction to stress and new situations for most individuals. However, pathological anxiety occurs when a person experiences intense anxiety, far beyond expected levels for the situation.
This article looks at pathological anxiety, its causes, symptoms, and how an individual can treat and manage this mental health issue.
Pathological, or maladaptive anxiety, means that an individual experiences intense anxiety or anxiety in situations that usually would not cause anxiety. Essentially, it is extreme anxiety that extends beyond a typical emotional response.
While anxiety is a natural human response to certain social situations or unusual activities, maladaptive anxiety is not.
A doctor may diagnose pathological anxiety if an individual experiences the following symptoms:
However, it is important to emphasize that many individuals living with pathological anxiety may not meet the full disorder criteria for the condition.
Experts do not know what causes pathological anxiety precisely, although genetics and trauma may play a role.
Research indicates that developing anxiety disorders is approximately 30–50% heritable, meaning that family history can be a contributing cause in some cases.
Amygdala hijack may also contribute to pathological anxiety. The amygdala is the emotional hub of the human brain and plays a part in fear and the “fight or flight” response that helps people react quickly in response to danger.
In an amygdala hijack, a person cannot respond rationally to a threat as the amygdala overpowers the frontal lobes, creating an exaggerated stress response.
Research is also looking at gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptors that help the chemical messenger GABA enter nerve cells. GABA reduces nerve impulses and plays a role in processing anxiety.
Individuals may experience anxiety differently and react in various ways to the same trigger or event.
Symptoms of general pathological anxiety can include:
However, individuals need to understand that many people have difficulties with pathological anxiety without experiencing these symptoms.
Because pathological anxiety can manifest in various ways and other factors, such as illness, can cause it, a doctor may use various assessments to help them diagnose the condition.
They may begin with a complete physical exam and thorough medical history to help rule out any other medical disorders that could cause the individual symptoms.
The doctor may then order laboratory tests such as:
Depending on the results of these tests, a doctor may recommend further evaluations, including:
The doctor may also use specialized mental health tests to help them diagnose the individual. These may include self-assessment questionnaires, interviews with therapists, and various clinical scales such as the Generalised Anxiety Disorder Assessment-7 and the Severity Measure for Panic Disorder.
Doctors typically treat anxiety problems with medication, psychotherapy, or a combination of the two.
Doctors may recommend the following medications for pathological anxiety:
Inappropriately discarded drugs can harm people, animals, and the environment. It is essential to dispose of any unwanted medication safely. Read our guide on medication disposal here.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is one of the most effective forms of psychotherapy. It is a talking therapy that helps people manage their anxiety issues by changing how they think and behave in response to triggers. It allows people to change disturbing or destructive thought patterns that influence their behavior.
Doctors may recommend exposure therapy to help people confront their fears instead of avoiding them. It aims to break the pattern of avoidance and fear and provide a safe environment to expose people to the objects, activities, or situations they fear and avoid. People then learn that their anxiety is a false alarm, and they do not need to fear the trigger. Instead, they can cope effectively.
Learn more about some types of therapy available.
Anxiety disorders, such as pathological anxiety, have very high morbidity, meaning it causes other medical problems, including:
In some people, anxiety harms their ability to form healthy social relationships and can affect their quality of life. In addition, experts have linked severe anxiety to increased rates of suicide.
However, anxiety disorders are highly treatable. Most people living with anxiety can reduce or eliminate their symptoms after several months of psychotherapy. In fact, many notice improvements after a few sessions.
If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours per day at 800-273-8255. During a crisis, people who are hard of hearing can use their preferred relay service or dial 711 then 800-273-8255.
Click here for more links and local resources.
Anxiety is an expected part of life, and most people experience its symptoms at some point. Typical feelings of anxiety help an individual to identify and respond to danger. However, if these feelings become disproportionate to the situation, doctors may consider this pathological anxiety.
Anxiety and pathological anxiety may present with the same symptoms. However, the two differ because pathological anxiety is more intense, lasts longer, or occurs more frequently. It can also interfere with a person’s general functioning if it becomes chronic.
So, while anxiety as an emotion can be useful and generally does not affect a person’s day-to-day lifestyle, pathological anxiety prevents people from functioning typically and negatively affects their well-being to a far greater degree.
Pathological anxiety is an overestimation of a perceived threat or danger, leading to excessive and inappropriate responses. It is extreme anxiety above and beyond the typical emotional response that negatively affects an individual’s everyday functioning.
Doctors may use a range of tests to diagnose pathological anxiety and rule out any potential causes. Once they have excluded underlying medical problems, they may recommend treating the anxiety with a combination of medications and psychotherapy.
Anxiety disorders are highly treatable, and individuals should seek help if they are experiencing any symptoms of anxiety that are affecting their quality of life.
Last medically reviewed on April 27, 2022
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