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Reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
You know how you can get a headache and a runny nose at the same time? Or how you can be hungry and thirsty? The fact is, it’s not all that uncommon for multiple things to be going on within your body at once.
And when you are navigating two or more serious conditions at once, there’s even a medical term for it. It is called comorbidity and it refers to the condition of having two or more diseases at the same time.
One of the mental disorders that is often associated with comorbidity? Anxiety.
As mentioned, comorbid anxiety means you have anxiety and another type of disorder or condition.
When it comes to the anxiety part, comorbid anxiety is no different than how it may manifest if you had it solo.
Anxiety has fairly high prevalence rates. In fact, some research indicate that 40 million American adults are affected by an anxiety disorder. Here are some of the various anxiety disorders that people suffer from:
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD): A common anxiety disorder, GAD is diagnosed when you feel symptoms of anxiety more often than not over the course of six months. Symptoms include a rapid heart rate, irritability, sleep problems, stomach issues and more.
Social Anxiety Disorder: Sometimes referred to as social phobia, people with social anxiety disorder may find they get really anxious in social situations. It can also be connected to things like public speaking.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): Surviving trauma (think a natural disaster, experiencing combat or being assaulted) can lead to this disorder. It’s not uncommon for people with PTSD to dissociate, have emotional outbursts or even feel like they are re-living the trauma.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD): If you struggle with obsessive thoughts and compulsions, you may have OCD. Examples of this behavior include sanitizing your hands over and over or checking to make sure you locked the windows in your house repeatedly.
Panic Disorder: Marked by feelings of intense fears, panic attacks are quite common with this disorder. Other core symptoms are an increased heart rate and shortness of breath.
With comorbid anxiety, you would have one of the above and would then also have another condition of some sort.
It can be difficult to diagnose two mental illnesses because there are often shared or overlapping symptoms.
Additionally, certain combinations of symptoms could suggest an entirely different singular condition, such as bipolar disorder.
All of this is to say that a healthcare professional will need to assess you to figure out if you have comorbid anxiety.
When it comes to comorbidity and mental illness, it’s not uncommon for those dealing with anxiety to also have major depression (or any type of depression, really).
Some people believe this is because they present in similar ways, so having one may make it more likely to have another.
While this could be called comorbid anxiety, it could also be referred to as comorbid depression.
Here’s how common comorbid anxiety and depression really is: research has found that between 10 percent and 20 percent of adults in any given 12 month time frame will visit a primary care physician during an anxiety or depressive disorder episode. Of those people, more than half are dealing with comorbid anxiety or a second depressive disorder.
Even more proof of how not rare this is: a worldwide survey found that nearly 46 percent of people with lifetime major depressive disorder also had a lifetime anxiety disorder.
Ready for some good news?
Research has also found that comorbidity of anxiety actually boosts the chances that mental health issues will be recognized by a healthcare professional.
They are good at helping treat both anxiety and depressive symptoms. Because of this, they are often used in the treatment of both depression and the treatment of anxiety.
While comorbid anxiety most often occurs with depression, there are a variety of other disorders you could have along with an anxiety disorder.
In a large survey on comorbidity, it was found that nearly 18 percent of people with a substance use disorder (SUD) also met the criteria for an anxiety disorder.
Another study of 422 patients with opioid use disorders found that 21 percent of the women and 12 percent of the men also met the criteria for a lifetime anxiety disorder.
In terms of specific anxiety disorders, it has been found that generalized anxiety disorder most often occurs alongside drug or alcohol use disorders. The thinking here is that patients turn to alcohol or drugs in an attempt to self-medicate.
Another common disorder that is comorbid with anxiety is autism spectrum disorder (ASD). In fact, anxiety disorders appear in 40 percent cases of ASD.
ASD is a neurodevelopmental disorder that is marked by deficits in social communication and repetitive behaviors or interests — the age of onset of these things is usually on the younger side.
Finally, in a systematic review, it was found that comorbidity between bipolar disorder (also called bipolar depression) and various anxiety disorders is also prevalent.Bipolar disorder is a mental illness that causes big shifts in mood, focus and energy levels.
If you have a comorbid disorder, it means you have two different conditions of disorders at once. It could be any type of disorder — like a physical condition, emotional disorders, mood disorders or a psychiatric disorder.
Comorbid anxiety means that you’re dealing with an anxiety disorder (like GAD, obsessive-compulsive disorder or social anxiety disorder) along with another mental illness (like major depression or bipolar depression) or health condition.
When it comes to psychiatric comorbidity, it is not uncommon to have both major depression and anxiety. This can be challenging to diagnose because depressive symptoms and those of anxiety can be very similar.
It’s also not uncommon to have anxiety disorder comorbidity with a substance abuse disorder or autism spectrum disorders. For example, alcohol use disorders are often seen in people who have GAD. Because of this close connection, some may say that one of the risk factors of anxiety is the possibility of developing a substance abuse issue.
They will be able to look at all your symptoms together and determine if you have a comorbid disorder, such as major depression and anxiety.
Kate Hagerty is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with over a decade of healthcare experience. She has worked in critical care, community health, and as a retail health provider.
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