We can all feel fearful and anxious at times. However, when these feelings are very strong and persistent they cause much distress, and interfere with everyday life. In this case they may represent a clinical ‘anxiety disorder’. Anxiety disorders are, in fact, the most common mental health problem likely to affect people. Indeed, a survey of mental disorders across the whole of Europe in 2010 found that anxiety disorders of one kind or another affected almost 15% of the European population, that is over 60 million people.
There are many different kinds of anxiety disorders, some of which make life particularly difficult, For example, generalised anxiety disorder is characterised by an overwhelming and uncontrollable sense of worry about almost all aspects of one’s life. Other anxiety disorders can manifest as panic attacks and fear of going out; this can be so bad that sufferers become housebound. Post-traumatic stress disorder can occur in anyone who has been subject to, or witnessed, a life-threatening or horrifying event. This can lead to a constant state of arousal, nightmares and avoidance of any reminders associated with the event.
For all these conditions, in most people specific psychological treatments are highly effective. Many of the treatments currently recommended by NICE were developed in the University Department of Psychiatry which continues to work closely with the Oxford Health Foundation Trust in devising new treatments that can be readily implemented in an NHS setting. We are also performing work on the effects of combining medication and psychological treatments for people experiencing panic disorder and social anxiety (with Andrea Reinecke and Catherine Harmer).
Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience, Catherine Harmer, Oxford University Department of Psychiatry, and Philip Cowen, Professor of Psychopharmacology, Oxford University Department of Psychiatry