Anxiety is an automatic reaction to danger. It is the flight part of fight or flight. When triggered a series of changes happen in your body that get you ready to run for your life or fight for your life. This will include things like your heart beating faster to give your muscles more energy.
Anxiety is a completely natural reaction that can help save your life but in anxiety disorders, the anxiety is usually happening when there isn’t any danger. Psychological therapy is the treatment of choice for anxiety disorders and symptoms, and you can get real relief by getting treatment.
Anxiety symptoms include:
- Shortness of breath
- Pounding heart
- Dizzy or light-headed
- Tingling fingers or feet
- Feeling faint
- Trembling or shaking
- Hot or cold flushes
- Dry mouth
- Nausea or butterflies
- Blurred vision
- Muscle tension
All anxiety disorders involve some of these symptoms but the triggers differ. It is the trigger of the fear than makes the difference between the anxiety disorders. Below is a brief description of the anxiety disorders that cause daily stress to sufferers and are commonly treated by psychologists.
Panic attacks are triggered by feelings within the body. Details are here.
Social Phobia involves an intense fear of what other people think of you. It can also be thought of as being very shy with most people with social phobia identifying with the label “shy”. Shyness becomes a problem for people when it prevents them from doing the things they want or need to do. Most sufferers cope with the anxiety by avoiding social situations where they will be centre of attention or under scrutiny by other people. It is typical for sufferers to avoid giving presentations, meeting new people (because of having to do “small talk”) and talking up in groups or in one-on-one conversations with others. Some describe a more subtle form of avoidance. That is only interacting with people if you can put on an act – that is the type of person you think others will approve of. This form of avoidance makes it very difficult to get close to other people. Sufferers of social phobia report intense loneliness and being on the sideline of life is also a common experience.
At the core of social phobia is a fear of making mistakes, not be seen as “good enough” or worry that people will reject the “real” you. It can be a relief to realise that it is not just part permanent and that you can do something to make these situations easier for yourself.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
GAD is characterised by excessive worry and anxiety that is more than the circumstances that trigger it justify. If you suffer from GAD you would probably say that you worried too much and wish that you could stop. The worry is experienced as being out of control and affects every area of your life. The anxiety and worry is described as generalised because sufferers worry about everything.
The symptoms of GAD typically include:
- Feeling restless, keyed up, or on edge
- Being easily tired
- Having difficulty concentrating, or having your mind go blank
- Feeling irritable
- Having tense, tight or sore muscles
- Having sleep difficulties
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
OCD is characterised by persistent, unwanted thoughts that you perceive as difficult to control. The thoughts are experienced as distressing usually because they are violent or obscene, or simply because they are perceived as senseless. You will try to prevent the thoughts from happening however this is not possible, simply because by trying not to think thoughts they pop into our mind (try not to think of a pink elephant!).
If you have OCD you are trapped in a vicious cycle. The thoughts cause you to experience distress, anxiety, stress that peaks sharply after the thought enters your awareness. In order to reduce the anxiety you may engage in rituals that are aimed at negating the effect of the thought. For example, if you fear your hands are contaminated you may repeatedly wash them, or if you have thoughts about murdering someone you may try and think about all the reasons why you wouldn’t. Most sufferers realise that these rituals make no logical sense yet they experience such immediate relief from the distressing feelings after engaging in the ritual they repeat them anyway. By responding to the thoughts through ritualising you increase the likelihood of the thought reoccurring.
OCD is diagnosed when:
- The ritualising becomes preoccupying
- When you are avoiding lots of situations to avoid the thoughts being triggered
- When it is impacting on your life to a significant degree.
Panic Disorder is involves a fear of the anxiety symptoms experienced from having a panic attack. Usually you experience an out of the blue panic attack one day which you find overwhelming and scary. Understandably you want to avoid ever experiencing such intense unpleasant symptoms again. So you become sensitised to your bodily sensations and become hypervigilant to the signs that you might be about to experience another attack. Eventually you start associating the panic attacks with particular situations and you begin to avoid those situations. This is a vicious cycle and you soon begin to avoid more and more situations. The fear in panic disorder driven by how you interpret the anxiety symptoms you experience. For example, some sufferers think they are having a heart attack while other people think they are going crazy. Additionally, you may also be concerned about how you will look if you panic in particular situations. Agoraphobia usually occurs secondary to Panic Disorder. You are diagnosed with Agoraphobia when your degree of avoidance of situations is widespread and severe.
A careful assessment is required to diagnose these conditions. If you can recognise yourself in any of these descriptions you may benefit from psychological therapy to reduce your symptoms.
Anxiety and PTSD
PTSD is a trauma related condition. The anxiety will often be like other anxiety disorders confusing some professionals you see. It may be that the other anxiety disorder is also present or may pre-date the trauma making the treatment harder.