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Psychiatrist: How anxiety disorders differ from anxiety.

LAS VEGAS -- The way Robert Hudak, MD, sees it, the terms excessive anxiety and anxiety disorders are not interchangeable--and do not mean the same thing.

"People with anxiety disorders have excessive anxiety, but not everyone with excessive anxiety has a psychiatric disorder," he said at an annual psychopharmacology update held by the Nevada Psychiatric Association. "Any anxiety above baseline can be normal. It's not necessarily pathological. I think that's an important point that's easy to overlook when we're in clinical practice, and it affects how we approach our patients."

Anxiety can present in a variety of ways in different individuals. Panic attacks are often the primary chief complaint, and it's common to hear complaints from family that the person is routinely seeking reassurance. In addition, tics and twitches are not unusual in people with anxiety disorder. "Some of that is brought out by anxiety itself," said Dr. Hudak, who is a psychiatrist at the University of Pittsburgh. Sleep disturbances or other somatic complaints also are common. "They complain of racing thoughts, increased energy and depression," he added. "When someone complains about depression, don't assume they have a mood disorder. The reason people with anxiety disorders complain about depression is that it really feels awful. Anxiety is incredibly dysphoric." Physical complaints include shortness of breath, GI distress, dizziness, vague somatic complaints, and skin or gum lesions.

He went on to note that individuals with excessive anxiety virtually never lose consciousness. "The exception is blood/injection/injury phobia," he said. "That's the only case in which anxiety will cause loss of consciousness. It happens in virtually no other setting. Ondine's curse while falling asleep is another symptom that only occurs with anxiety. It's a sensation that you have to remember to breathe, and breathing is no longer automatic. There are medical conditions that cause Ondine's curse. However, the patient who complains of Ondine's curse as they're falling asleep is pathognomonic for anxiety."

Dr. Hudak said panic attacks, a discrete period of fear or discomfort, rarely last more than 30 minutes.

"I view panic attacks in three flavors," he said. "Some people have the cardiovascular flavor with shortness of breath and heart palpitations. Some have what I call the neurological flavor, where the predominant symptoms seem to be dizziness and tingling. Other people have GI flavor, with gut pain, nausea, and diarrhea. Panic attacks are not a psychiatric disorder. It's a qualifier for any psychiatric disorder."

Social anxiety disorder, meanwhile, presents as two completely distinct and separate illnesses that have nothing in common with each other.

"The performance subtype of social anxiety really presents like a simple phobia," Dr. Hudak said. "The treatment for that is really behavioral therapy and cognitive-behavioral therapy, and rarely the use of medications. The generalized type presents with intrusive, [obsessive-compulsive disorder]--like thoughts. Affected individuals describe themselves as 'paranoid' or feeling that they are being scrutinized. The categorical versus dimensional diagnosis is being debated." Individuals with generalized anxiety disorder, on the other hand, have excessive and pervasive worry and anxiety present more days than not for a 6-month period. "The individual finds it difficult to control the worry," he said. Somatic symptoms include restlessness, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, irritability, muscle tension, and insomnia.

The medical work-up for excessive anxiety should consist of history and physical exam, complete blood count, the Chem-7 metabolic test, thyroid-stimulating hormone, and EKG if indicated. Both medications and behavioral therapy are used in the treatment of anxiety disorders. Many patients require both in order to achieve maximum treatment response. "Often, people with less severe illnesses can be managed with therapy alone," Dr. Hudak said.

"In more severe cases, medications can help reduce symptoms to the point where therapy is easier to perform. The bottom line here is that at no time should you treat someone with an anxiety disorder with medications alone. Behavioral therapy is at least as effective as medications, and perhaps more so."

Many trials of anxiety medications are of short duration and therefore lack evidence of long-term improvement, he said. Commonly used scales often include nonspecific items such as arousal score that can be reduced by sedating medications without improving the actual disorder. If someone has excessive anxiety that is not part of a primary anxiety disorder, Dr. Hudak typically prescribes benzodiazepines. "If someone is anxious because a loved one died, or if they're nervous about their wedding day, or about taking a board exam, benzos can be used," he said. "For someone who has an anxiety disorder, I virtually never use benzodiazepines. I generally use medications in the antidepressant category. I probably initiate fewer than five benzodiazepine prescriptions per year for anxiety disorder. There is also data to suggest that using benzodiazepines in patients with anxiety disorder may make cognitive-behavioral therapy more difficult."

According to Dr. Hudak, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors seem to have the largest evidence base in panic disorder and are first-line pharmacotherapy for both panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder, while tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) usually are considered a second-line therapy. "There is good data behind MAO inhibitors, and there is increasingly good data behind [selective norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors]," he said. "If someone has failed a trial of SSRIs, you may consider trying an SNRI before a TCA. However, I would try multiple SSRIs before ruling out that class of medications. I have had people fail five SSRIs and respond dramatically to the sixth SSRI."

Dr. Hudak disclosed that he receives royalties from the Cambridge University Press.

dbrunk@mdedge.com

BY DOUG BRUNK

EXPERT ANALYSIS FROM NPA 2019

Caption: Dr. Hudak

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Title Annotation:MENTAL HEALTH
Author:Brunk, Doug
Publication:Family Practice News
Date:Apr 1, 2019
Words:933
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