Anxiety is a normal human emotion that everyone experiences at times. It is a normal reaction to stress and can actually be beneficial in some situations. For some people, however, anxiety can become excessive. For example, many people feel anxious, or nervous, when faced with a problem at work, before taking a test, or making an important decision. Additionally, everyone experiences anxiety differently. Some people have general anxiety that is manageable but never seems to go away. Others suffer from profound anxiety attacks. Others experience anxiety in social situations, or need order and cleanliness in order to relax. While the person suffering may realize their anxiety is too much, they may also have difficulty controlling it and it may negatively affect their day-to-day living.
So, what is the difference between “normal anxiety” and “anxiety disorder”? It’s true that not all problem anxiety qualifies as an anxiety disorder. However, the answer isn’t always that simple. The reality is that if you feel as though your anxiety is causing a problem in your life, it may be beneficial to seek help. Some anxiety in life is normal, but anxiety that disrupts your quality of life is still a problem.
Shortly, anxiety disorders are different. They can cause such distress that it interferes with a person’s ability to lead a normal life. An anxiety disorder is a serious mental illness. For people with anxiety disorders, worry and fear are constant and overwhelming, and can be crippling.
Symptoms of Anxiety
It is useful to remind that despite their different forms, all anxiety disorders share one major symptom: persistent or severe fear or worry in situations where most people wouldn’t feel threatened.
Emotional Symptoms of Anxiety
In addition to the primary symptoms of irrational and excessive fear and worry, other common emotional symptoms of anxiety include:
- Feelings of apprehension or dread.
- Trouble concentrating.
- Feeling tense and jumpy.
- Anticipating the worst.
- Watching for signs of danger.
- Feeling like your mind’s gone blank.
Physical Symptoms of Anxiety
Anxiety is more than just a feeling. As a product of the body’s fight-or-flight response, anxiety involves a wide range of physical symptoms. Because of the numerous physical symptoms, anxiety sufferers often mistake their disorder for a medical illness. They may visit many doctors and make numerous trips to the hospital before their anxiety disorder is discovered. Common physical symptoms of anxiety include:
- Pounding heart.
- Stomach upset or dizziness.
- Frequent urination or diarrhea.
- Shortness of breath.
- Tremors and twitches.
- Muscle tension.
The Types of Anxiety Disorders
Anxiety is not a simple condition. It manifests itself in hundreds of different ways. In other words, as anxiety disorders are a group of related conditions rather than a single disorder, they can look very different from person to person. One individual may suffer from intense anxiety attacks that strike without warning, while another gets panicky at the thought of mingling at a party. Someone else may struggle with a disabling fear of driving, or uncontrollable, intrusive thoughts. Yet, another may live in a constant state of tension, worrying about anything and everything.
Psychologists have created categories for each of the different types of anxiety, and only by knowing what type of anxiety you’re experiencing can you hope to find relief.
1. Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
This disorder involves excessive, unrealistic worry and tension, even if there is little or nothing to provoke the anxiety. As stated below, most people feel anxious and worried from time to time when faced with certain situations such as taking an exam, speaking in public or going for a job interview. At times, a certain level of anxiety can help people feel alert and focused.
People with GAD, however, feel anxious and worried most of the time, not just in times of exceptional stress, and these worries interfere with their normal lives. Their worries may relate to any aspect of everyday life, including work, health, family and/or financial issues, even if there’s no real reason to worry about them. Even minor matters, such as household chores, can become the focus of anxiety and lead to uncontrollable worries and a feeling that something terrible will happen.
A person may have GAD if the specific signs and symptoms are present for six months or more (and on more days than not). This includes excessive worrying to the point that everyday activities like working, studying or socialising, are hard to carry out.
- The following are the most common problems associated with GAD:
- Constant restlessness, irritation, edginess, or a feeling of being without control.
- Fatigue, lethargy, or generally low energy levels (feeling drained).
- Tense muscles, especially on the back, neck, and shoulders.
- Trouble concentrating or focusing on tasks or activities.
- Obsessing over negative and anxiety causing thoughts – “Disaster Thinking.”
2. Social Phobia
Many people suffer from what’s known as “social phobia,” or an irrational fear of social situations. Some degree of social phobia is normal. Small degrees of shyness in public places, or discomfort while public speaking, are natural in most people, and do not imply an anxiety problem.
But when that fear disrupts your life, you may be suffering from social phobia. Social phobia is when the shyness is intense and the idea of socializing or speaking with the public, strangers, authority figures, or possibly even your friends causes you noticeable anxiety and fear.
People with social phobia view public situations as being potentially painful and distressing, living with a constant fear of being judged, observed, remarked upon, or avoided. Those with social phobia also often have an irrational fear of doing something stupid or embarrassing.
What makes this more than just shyness is when those fears cause you to avoid healthy socializing situations altogether. Those with social phobia often live with two or more of the following issues:
- Feeling hopeless or fearful within unfamiliar people or in unfamiliar situations.
- Obsession over being watched, observed, or judged by strangers.
- Experiencing overwhelming anxiety in any social situation with difficulty coping.
- Severe fear of public speaking – beyond what one would consider “normal”
- Anxiousness about the idea of social situations, even when not in one.
- Intense issues meeting new people or voicing up when you need to speak.
Many people with social phobia display avoidance behaviors. They avoid any and all social situations as best they can so as to avoid further fear.
3. Panic Disorder
Panic disorder is a debilitating anxiety disorder that is very different from GAD. Panic disorder is not about “panicking.” It’s not about getting very worried because you might lose your job or a lion is about to attack you in the jungle. That type of panic is normal.
A person has panic attacks, which are intense, overwhelming and often uncontrollable feelings of anxiety combined with a range of physical symptoms. A person having a panic attack may experience shortness of breath, chest pain, dizziness and excessive perspiration. Sometimes, people experiencing a panic attack think they are having a heart attack or are about to die. If a person has recurrent panic attacks or persistently fears having one for more than a month, the person is said to have panic disorder.
In short, panic disorder is characterized by two things:
- Panic attacks.
- Fear of getting panic attacks.
Panic attacks may have some or all of the above physical symptoms, and may also involve unusual symptoms as well, like headaches, ear pressure, and more. All of these symptoms feel very real, which is why those that experience panic attacks often seek medical attention for their health.
Panic attacks are also known for their mental “symptoms” which peak about 10 minutes into a panic attack. These include:
- Feeling of doom, or the feeling as though you’re about to die.
- Severe anxiety, especially health anxiety.
- Feeling of helplessness, or feeling like you’re no longer yourself.
Contrary to popular belief, it’s possible for the physical symptoms of panic attacks to come both before or after anxiety, meaning that you can experience physical symptoms first before experiencing the fear of death. That is why many people feel as though something is very wrong with their health.
Panic attacks can be triggered by an over-sensitivity to body sensations, by stress, or by nothing at all. Panic disorder can be very hard to control without help. Seeking assistance right away for your panic attacks is an important tool for stopping them, so that you can learn the techniques necessary to cure this panic.
You can also have panic disorder without experiencing many panic attacks. If you live in constant fear of a panic attack, you may also qualify for a panic disorder diagnosis. In those cases, your anxiety may resemble generalized anxiety disorder, but the fear in this case is known.
Agoraphobia is the fear of going out in public, either the fear of open spaces or the fear of being in unfamiliar places. Many people with agoraphobia either never leave their home, or do anything they can to avoid travelling anywhere other than their home and office. Some people can go to the grocery store or other familiar places, but otherwise experience intense, nearly debilitating fear anywhere else.
Many people (although not all) that have agoraphobia also have panic disorder. That’s because for many, agoraphobia is often caused by panic attacks. People experience panic attacks in public places, so they start to avoid more and more places in order to avoid panic attacks until they are afraid to go outside.
Some people experience agoraphobia after traumatic events as well.
Agoraphobia is more common for adults. Many also fear losing control (both psychologically and physically), causing them to avoid social situations. Not everyone living with agoraphobia spends all their time in their home.
Many people experience moments where they feel vulnerable outdoors and prefer to stay safe in their homes. But when the fear seems to persist for a long period of time, or is holding you back from living an enjoyable life, you may have agoraphobia.
5. Specific Phobias
Phobias are intense feelings of fear because of objects, scenarios, animals, etc. Phobias generally bring about disaster thinking (believing that the worst will happen) or avoidance behaviors (doing whatever it takes to avoid the phobia).
An example of a common phobia is arachnophobia, or fear of spiders. Very few spiders are likely to bite and even fewer are dangerous, and yet many people experience a feeling of severe dread at even the idea of a spider. Other examples of common phobias include snakes, airplanes, thunderstorms, and blood.
Phobias do count as an anxiety disorder, although some people can go their entire life with a phobia and not require treatment. For example, if you have a fear of chickens, but live nowhere near a farm, then while you do have a very real phobia it may not be disruptive.
But if at any point your life starts to change as a result of your phobia, then you have a real issue. Phobias commonly cause:
- Excessive, constant fear of a specific situation or event.
- Instant feeling of terror when confronted with the subject of your phobia.
- Inability to control your fears, even though you know they’re irrational.
- Going to great lengths to avoid the situation or object that causes you fear.
- Experiencing restrictions to your normal routine as a result of the fear.
For some people that have severe phobias, the mere idea of the object they fear (even if it is not present) causes stress or anxiety, or otherwise affects their life.
Many people have small phobias they can manage, but if the phobia ever starts to genuinely effect your ability to live a quality life, you may need to find a treatment solution.
6. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
As a human being, there are always risks that put your life in danger. Most people are lucky enough to avoid these dangers and live a nice and safe life. But in some cases, you may experience a life trauma – either physically or emotionally – and this can cause an anxiety problem known as post-traumatic stress disorder.
As the name implies, PTSD is an anxiety disorder that comes after the traumatic event (e.g. war, assault, accident, disaster) has occurred. Those living with PTSD often must get outside help, because PTSD can affect people for years after the event occurs – possibly even the rest of their life. PTSD affects people both psychologically and physically. In most cases, the person with PTSD is the one that experienced the traumatic event, but it’s possible to get PTSD by simply witnessing an event or injury, or even simply discovering that someone close to you dealt with a traumatic event.
You may also experience severe “what if” scenarios everywhere you go, including disaster thinking or feeling helpless / hopeless in public situations. Many of those with PTSD also experience avoidance behaviors of events, things, and even people that may remind them of the event – even if there is no link between these issues and the trauma.
Those with post-traumatic stress disorder may be at a greater baseline of stress on most days. They may be short tempered or easy to anger. They may be startled / frightened easily or be unable to sleep. PTSD can be a difficult problem to live with.
7. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
Obsessive compulsive disorder, or OCD, can be a very destructive anxiety disorder. Those with OCD often exhibit behaviors and fears that are not only confusing to those around you – they may be confusing to the person with OCD as well.
Compulsions and obsessions are similar, but exhibit themselves in different ways:
- Obsessions: Obsessions are thought based. They’re a preoccupation with a specific thought, usually a negative or fearful thought, which a person simply cannot shake no matter how hard they try.
- Compulsions: Compulsions are behavior based. They’re a “need” to perform an action or activity, often in a very specific way, and as hard as the person tries, they can’t stop themselves from performing the behavior.
An obsession would be worrying that your mother might get very sick, while a compulsion would be feeling anxious if you do not touch a doorknob before you leave the house. In many cases, the feelings are linked – those with OCD may feel as though they need to touch a doorknob, otherwise their mother may get sick.
You may qualify for a diagnosis with obsessions, compulsions, or both. You can have compulsions without obsessions, though in most cases the individual will experience severe stress if they do not respond to the compulsion. You can also have obsessions without compulsions (such as the fear of germs), but in many cases these fears will lead to a compulsion (like having to wash your hands).
Many people with OCD go through a variety of thought processes that lead to their obsessions and compulsions. The following are examples of obsessive thought patterns and compulsive thought patterns:
Compulsions and obsessions may appear very unusual, and it’s possible to know that they’re irrational, but those with OCD feel they still can’t control it.
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