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Anxiety disorders:
causes, symptoms, treatment

People who constantly suffer from irrational fears may no longer be able to cope with their everyday and professional lives. The cause may be an anxiety disorder. Various therapeutic measures can enable those affected to prevent the anxiety disorder from becoming chronic.


Everyone knows the feeling of fear. It is part of life and protects us from reckless actions. But what if normal fear becomes a day-to-day problem, going beyond normal dangerous situations, and your feelings become uncontrollable?
This is referred to as an anxiety disorder. Around 15% to 20% of Swiss people are affected by anxiety over the course of their lives.

Generalised anxiety disorder (GAS) is the most common anxiety disorder. In this condition, fears are diffuse and cannot be precisely determined – threats are multifaceted and lurk in every situation. Most of the concerns relate to one’s own health, the health of relatives, finances or work.

Persistent worries and anxieties ultimately cause physical discomfort, which can lead to secondary illnesses, such as sleep problems.

Anxiety disorder usually occurs in combination with other psychological illnesses and then quickly becomes chronic. For example, those affected may suffer from social phobia (social anxiety disorder), another specific phobia, depression or somatoform disorders. The latter are physical symptoms that do not have an underlying organic cause.

The following physical symptoms may indicate anxiety disorder:

  • Constant, persistent worries
  • Nervousness, restlessness
  • Sleep problems
  • Trembling
  • Palpitations
  • Shortness of breath
  • Increased muscle tension
  • Sweating
  • Dizziness, circulatory problems
  • Urgent need to urinate
  • Feely woozy
  • Abdominal symptoms
  • Nausea

Differences between generalised anxiety disorder and depression:

Depression and generalised anxiety disorder overlap in many ways: negative thought patterns predominate in both cases. The difference is that in generalised anxiety disorder, worries and fears are primarily focused on the future. Depressed people, on the other hand, focus on problems that are rooted in the past. Generalised anxiety disorder may also occur as a result of depression, and it may also be triggered by panic disorder or addiction.

Women are affected by anxiety disorders about twice as often as men. They are thought to be triggered by a combination of biological/genetic factors and psychological factors. The disease occurs more frequently from the age of 40, but can also occur in young adulthood.

Anxiety-provoking events at a young age, such as bereavement (e.g. death of a parent), abuse or neglect, are considered risk factors and triggers for generalised anxiety disorder. Parents are also an important influence. Anxious parents, in turn, encourage anxiety in their children.

Recent stressful experiences can also cause anxiety disorder, such as serious illness, unemployment, death or separation. Educationally disadvantaged groups are sometimes affected more often.

The extent to which shortages of messenger substances that enable the body to relax, for example, are involved in the development of anxiety has not yet been fully researched. But since drugs have a positive effect on the messenger substance serotonin, it can be concluded that there is a malfunction in the brain.

Without treatment, most anxiety disorders become chronic. Although affected people cannot expect to recover quickly, there are different ways of learning how to cope with anxiety better in everyday life.

  • Two forms of psychotherapy enjoy good levels of success: Cognitive behavioural therapy teaches patients how to behave in anxiety-provoking situations in order to replace negative thoughts with realistic thinking patterns.
  • Psychodynamic therapy focuses on unresolved conflicts – from the past, for example, but also from the present. The aim of the therapy is to resolve them.
  • Antidepressants such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) or selective serotonin noradrenaline reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) have become established in the treatment of generalised anxiety disorder. However, they normally have to be taken for at least a few weeks before they start working.
A combination of psychotherapy and medication is also possible.

People who suspect that they have an anxiety disorder usually go to a general practitioner first. Often, however, they do not go because of the anxiety disorder itself, but because of accompanying physical symptoms such as sleeping problems or stomach pain. As a result, anxiety disorders often remain undetected.
However, if patients are significantly affected by negative thoughts, this should also be discussed with their general practitioner during the initial consultation (medical history). The general practitioner can then arrange a therapist or put the patient in contact with a psychosomatic clinic.
A physical examination with a blood count should also be carried out in order to exclude any underlying organic causes of the symptoms.

Anxiety disorders penetrate all areas of life, affecting not only the patient but also their relatives. If left untreated, anxiety is extremely unlikely to go away by itself. However, therapies help to prevent the disease from becoming chronic.
Relaxation techniques such as autogenic training or mindfulness exercises, embedded into a course of cognitive behavioural therapy, for example, bring back a better quality of life. Exercise can also have a positive effect, especially if it is done with others, thus preventing social isolation.
The Swiss Society for Anxiety and Depression offers help to both those affected and their relatives.

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