Anxiety disorders: When anxiety goes above and beyond

What is anxiety?

Mind.uk defines anxiety as something that “we feel when we are worried, tense or afraid”. When you experience anxiety you are imagining things worse than they really are. It is an unpleasant part of life and affects everybody in different ways. For some people, certain situations will never evoke anxiety but rather mere short term worries or stress.

You might get anxious about things that are about to happen to you or about things that you think might happen in the future. Anxiety often originates from thoughts about health, money, family or work. it is a natural human response when under threat and not always a medical condition.

Anxiety is not the same feeling as fear and needs to be distinguished from it. You feel fear when your brain responds to a dangerous situation. Say you are threatened by somebody with a knife. Your brain responds with fear and would tell you to seek safety.

Fight or flight

From a psychological perspective, your brain responds to fear and anxiety in the same way. This is called the fight or flight situation. Your brain sends signals to boost your adrenaline and increase your heart rate. The oxygen flow in your body also increases making you hyper-alert.

Even though your brain responds the same way it still needs to decide if the fight or flight trigger is real. Is the feeling of fear and the situation real? Or is the trigger unreal and only happening in your imagination or in a dream? If the trigger is unreal the feeling of anxiety does not need action.

Over time, your brain will get better at distinguishing between real and unreal triggers. But, due to frightening experiences in your past, this is not perfect. Because of that, fight or flight situations are triggered in your daily situations. Over time, this excessive nervousness alters how you process emotions and how you behave.

Silhouette of a person with the letters brain chaos

What the statistics say

In the United Kingdom (UK) the NHS is carrying out the Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey (APMS) every seven years. It covers England, Scotland and Wales. The survey was last carried out in 2014 and is the fourth in a series. It covers both treated and untreated psychiatric disorders.

The survey makes for some bleak reading. Mind you, the last time it was carried out was in 2014 and mental disorders such as anxiety are increasing year after year. So, when it will bet carried out the next time in 2021, it will even get worse.

According to the survey, one in six adults had a common mental disorder (CMD). One in five women and one in eight men. CMD’s included the following disorders:

  • Depression
  • Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD)
  • Panic disorder
  • Phobias
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • CMD not otherwise specified (CMD-NOS)

Anxiety or normal stress?

Stress is a common trigger for anxiety but they are two different things. Stress can be positive and negative. On the positive side, it can motivate you to work harder and do a better job.

Good stress comes and goes letting your mind relax in between. When you are exposed to constant stress it might turn chronic which is is bad stress.

Symptoms for chronic stress include

  • Loss of sleep
  • Headaches
  • High blood pressure
  • Chest pain

Stress is a response to external causes such as an argument with loved ones or a tight deadline at work. But once the situation is resolved the stress subsides. When you are stressed you know what the cause is. Tackling that cause heads-on helps to reduce stress.

Chronic stress can escalate into anxiety though hence why it is so important to mentally unwind. Check out those 10 ways to reduce daily stress.

In contrast, anxiety originates internally and can be a response to stress. Anxiety persists even if the concern or the deadline has passed. It can have no clear cause and can be more difficult to treat.

Normal worries or anxiety disorder?

When you are worried, you normally know what you are worried about. Worries are exact. Anxiety, on the other hand, is vaguer and widespread. You are anxious about several things at the same time. But when they are resolved something else crops up that triggers your anxious feelings.

You will know if your normal worries turn into an anxiety disorder. It happens when your worries are persistent, severe and excessive for the given situation.

If your continues feelings of worry start to impact how you go about your daily life it could mean you have an anxiety disorder. In those situations, it becomes difficult for you to enjoy life as you are unable to control those feelings.

When you develop an anxiety disorder, your body triggers the fight or flight mode too often. So, over time, your brain will learn to perceive the world as a more dangerous place than it actually is.

Types of anxiety

Anxieties can appear in different forms. Not everybody is anxious about the same thing. You can experience anxious feelings in different ways. Here are some commonly diagnosed anxiety disorders.

1.) Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD)

This type of anxiety disorder is about everyday life events with no apparent reason for worry. People with GAD will feel worried about a wide range of things including money, family, friends, health and work.

This is accompanied by a feeling of dread and unease. This type of anxiety is not as intense, like a panic attack for example, but lasts much longer.

This type of disorder develops gradually and in all stages of life. Exact causes of GAD are hard to pinpoint but common triggers are life experiences, family background and biological factors.

Signs of GAD are:

  • you’ve been worrying for about 6 months straight
  • your worrying is uncontrollable
  • you expect the worst
  • your worries significantly disrupt your social life, your work and other activities
  • you are indecisive and fear of making the wrong decision

Behavioural symptoms of GAD include :

  • putting things off because you feel overwhelmed
  • avoiding situations that make you feel anxious

Emotional symptoms of GAD include:

  • an inability to tolerate uncertainty
  • intrusive thoughts that make you feel anxious which you can’t seem to avoid
People walking across a crosswalk

2.) Agoraphobia

Agoraphobia causes people to get fearful of places where it is hard to escape or where help might not be available. Such places include public transport, bridges or remote areas. This should not be confused with claustrophobia which is the feeling of being trapped.

Agoraphobia can develop after having one or more panic attacks. People with agoraphobia often dread leaving their home. They associate the outside world with having a panic attack.

They feel they have to stay away from the places with perceived danger. It’s easier to stay at home. Some people with agoraphobia are able to leave their home but only with a companion.

Signs of agoraphobia are:

  • you are feeling anxious because you are home alone
  • you are avoiding crowded places
  • you are avoiding open spaces like parks and fields
  • you don’t feel comfortable going away from your home

3.) Social anxiety disorder

Social phobia involves extreme anxiety about certain social interactions. It is an intense fear of being judged and watched by others in public situations. This fear can be so intense that you even get anxious just thinking about those situations.

You also go to great lengths avoiding those situations. This, in turn, has an impact on work, school and your social life.

Most people feel nervous before giving a presentation at work to a bigger audience or meeting someone new. Walking into a room full of strangers isn’t thrilling to everybody but most people get through this situation.

If you have social phobia though, the stress caused by those situations is too much to handle for you. You worry about appearing anxious or being viewed as stupid or awkward.

Symptoms of social anxiety disorder are:

  • Intense fear that others might see you as anxious
  • You avoid talking to people out of fear of embarrassment
  • You analyse your performance and flaws after social interactions
  • You have an extreme perception that others watch and judge you all the time
  • You make little eye contact, speak with a soft voice and show a rigid body posture
People with umbrellas crossing a crosswalk in rainy weather

4.) Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

You might develop PTSD after experiencing a traumatic event in your life. This could be the experience of threatened or actual death, being bullied, a car accident or even a natural disaster.

The development of this disorder depends on how you deal with the traumatic experience. It is not dependent on the severity of the experience. And not everybody who does experience a traumatic event also develops PTSD.

Following a traumatic event, almost everybody shows some signs of PTSD. It is normal to feel fearful, have bad dreams and not being able to think about the event. You feel unbalanced, numb and your sense of safety is shattered.

For most people, those symptoms don’t last very long and wear off after a few weeks. But if you develop PTSD, the symptoms don’t decrease and you don’t feel better day after day. In certain cases, they even get worse.

Symptoms of PTSD are:

  • you have problems falling and staying asleep
  • you re-experience the traumatic event with flashbacks, nightmares or intrusive memories
  • you start to develop problems with your relationships and relating to others
  • you have negative thoughts and frequent mood changes
  • you persistently feel fear, anger, guilt or shame

5.) Panic disorder

Panic attacks are shared by many anxiety disorders. Yet, when a panic attack occurs without an apparent trigger, you might have a panic disorder. When it happens, you feel terrified and overwhelmed even though there is no specific reason.

A single panic attack only lasts a few minutes but can leave a longer-lasting mental imprint.

Having this uncertainty when the next panic attack is striking you can lead to further anxiety disorders. You might stay at home out of fear of having an attack in a public space. Causes of panic disorder are not fully understood yet. But women are twice as likely as men to develop this condition.

Symptoms of panic disorder, which are mainly physical, are:

  • your heartbeat quickly skyrockets in a matter of seconds
  • you experience chills or hot flashes
  • sudden stomach pains and shortness of breath
  • a sudden change in mental state including the fear you could die
Silhouette of depressed person

6.) Specific phobias

Other common forms of phobias are:

  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder: excessive self-blame and sense of responsibility
  • Separation anxiety disorder: being separated from a person or a place
  • Simple phobias: fear of blood, fear of spiders, fear of elevators

Final thoughts

Anxiety disorders are treated with psychotherapy or medication. But medical solutions are not always best to treat anxiety. They come with significant side effects and are, depending on the medication, quite expensive.

Are you suffering from anxiety and looking for ways to cope? Here are some tips to improve your mood and ease the symptoms. Have you already learnt to deal with your anxiety? Let me know in the comment section below what you did.

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