Anxiety disorders are serious medical illnesses that affect approximately 19 million American adults. These disorders fill people's lives with overwhelming anxiety and fear. Unlike the relatively mild, brief anxiety caused by a stressful event such as a business presentation or a first date, anxiety disorders are chronic, relentless, and can grow progressively worse if not treated.
Fear and anxiety are a normal--even essential--part of life. They prepare us for danger, creating physiological changes that enable us to effectively respond to a threat. Fear is very straightforward. It arises in response to immediate danger, so it is usually unexpected, very intense, and limited to the situation at hand. Your response to the fear, such as jumping out of the path of an oncoming car, quickly resolves the situation.
As long as there's a good reason for fear or anxiety, and it doesn't interfere with the ability to work, play, and socialize, it is not considered a problem. But when anxiety takes on a life of its own and begins to disrupt everyday activities, the situation is no longer normal. A genuine emotional disorder is now at work... and it's time to see a doctor.
In many instances, medications are essential. If you suffer from mania, a major depression, or a paranoid disorder, medications may actually be able to restore you to your normal self. For other conditions, such as schizophrenia, medications control and modify symptoms to the degree that a person can stay in his community. Medications also ease the more distressing symptoms, allowing a person to engage in a therapeutic relationship and re-engage in the activities of her daily life. Sometimes a drug is a useful additional measure during particularly stressful times, perhaps in the initial stage of treatment or at a time of crisis. Those patients with thought disorders or hallucinatory experiences can be maintained only with appropriate antipsychotic medications.
Psychopharmacology, the treatment of psychiatric disorders and emotional distress with medication, has developed over the last fifty years, as our understanding of the workings of the brain has increased in sophistication. When medication is prescribed for mental and emotional illness, the most frequent goal is to restore the chemical balance within the brain, thereby restoring equilibrium to the entire system. Certain drugs function to address certain symptoms, such as when sedatives are prescribed for insomnia. Medications can work to slow disease processes, such as when anti-oxidants are used to treat Alzheimer's. Still other drugs control cravings and curb other problematic behaviors, such as taken to control alcoholism.
Psychologists, social workers, and counselors sometimes work closely with a psychiatrist or other physician, who will prescribe medications when they are required. For some people, group therapy is a helpful part of treatment.