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Anxiety is a natural response to stress by your body. People can feel nervous or anxious about social situations, the first day of school, or starting a new job.

But when feelings of anxiety overwhelm or seem more extreme than a situation might require, this can be a sign of something more serious, like pathological anxiety.

In this article, we’ll define pathological anxiety, as well as it’s symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment.

Pathological anxiety is anxiety that’s overly intense or occurs in situations where anxiety typically wouldn’t be present. It’s anxiety that’s above and beyond the expected emotional response.

In short, while anxiety is a natural response to certain events, extreme anxiety isn’t. If it’s disproportionate to the situation or interferes with your life or functioning, it isn’t typical and may be considered pathological anxiety.

Symptoms of anxiety can vary, depending on the person experiencing it. One person’s body may react a certain way in a given situation, while another person may have completely different physical reactions to the same triggering event.

Symptoms of general pathological anxiety can include:

  • increased heart rate
  • rapid breathing
  • restlessness
  • difficulty concentrating
  • trouble falling asleep

This isn’t a full list of anxiety symptoms. There are other symptoms as well, and it’s important to remember that each person experiences anxiety differently.

There are many factors that go into diagnosing anxiety, particularly pathological anxiety. It can manifest in many different ways and be caused by a variety of things, including illness.

For that reason, you may need a complete physical exam first. This exam can help rule out any organic causes for anxiety. You’ll also give a full personal history, including all medications or supplements and substance use, including caffeine.

The doctor or healthcare professional might also order blood tests or other medical tests to make sure that no underlying physical illness or condition is causing anxiety symptoms.

Diagnostic mental health tests may include self-assessment questionnaires, a clinical assessment, a structured interview with a therapist, and various clinical scales. A mental health professional will also review criteria for various kinds of anxiety disorders.

Pathological anxiety, or anxiety disorders, are typically treated with medication or psychotherapy. Your treatment plan could even include both.

Treatment can vary depending on what works for an individual. Sometimes, you have to try more than one medication or more than one therapist to find what works best for you. It could be a combination of several treatments.

Psychotherapy

Therapy can be helpful, especially if it’s geared toward specific types of anxiety.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can teach you how to restructure thoughts, behaviors, and reactions to reduce anxiety responses. Exposure therapy may also be helpful and is often used in conjunction with CBT.

Medication

Medication may be prescribed by either a primary care doctor or a psychiatrist. A psychologist or counselor can’t prescribe medications. The most common medications used to treat pathological anxiety include:

  • anti-anxiety medication
  • antidepressants
  • beta-blockers

Certain drugs work better than others for specific kinds of anxiety disorders, so your doctor will work with you to find the one that best treats your symptoms.

We don’t know exactly what causes pathological anxiety, although researchers are learning more. Some people develop pathological anxiety from traumatic experiences, and genetics are also thought to possibly play a part.

There’s also something called an amygdala hijack. The amygdala is part of the limbic system in your brain, and is where emotions are given meaning and attached to associations and responses.

In an amygdala hijack, if you’re faced with possible danger or anxiety, the amygdala overpowers the frontal lobes and creates an illogical or exaggerated stress reaction. This reaction may be similar to the “fight or flight” response.

Research is also being done on GABA receptors. These structures help get the neurotransmitter GABA into nerve cells. GABA helps to reduce nerve impulses. GABA receptors are involved in how individuals process anxiety and the symptoms of pathological anxiety.

You can’t prevent anxiety disorders or pathological anxiety. But there are treatments and ways to manage the symptoms. Your doctor can work with you to find out what works best for your symptoms and specific situation.

If someone you love is dealing with pathological anxiety, you might be wanting to help them but not sure how. Here are some tips:

  • Acknowledge the anxiety they feel; don’t minimize it or brush it off.
  • Show them that you care and that you’re worried about them.
  • Encourage them to seek help, even if it’s just to talk with their primary care doctor about what’s going on.

There’s treatment for pathological anxiety, and you don’t have to live with it by yourself.

Talk with your doctor about your symptoms and ways to help treat it. They may refer you to a specialist, who can provide you with a specialized diagnosis and work with you to address specific anxieties or triggers.