What is an Anxiety Disorder?
Fear and anxiety are an unavoidable, but necessary, part of life. When you experience the familiar physical and psychological signs of fear and anxiety such as sweating, racing heart, shortness of breath, trembling, worry, or stress, these are cues that there is something happening that could be a threat and that you need to attended to it. This "flight or fight" reaction activates the physical and psychological resources necessary to deal with the potential danger.
Although this system works well most of the time, sometimes it can go into overdrive and do more harm than good. Anxiety disorders are prolonged exaggerations of our normal and adaptive reaction to fearful or stressful events.
What are the Different Anxiety Disorders?Panic Disorder
Panic Disorder occurs when your body's "flight or fight" response becomes activated for no reason. These panic attacks occur out of the blue; sometimes even in the middle of the night. Symptoms of a panic attack include heart palpitations, sweating, trembling, shortness of breath, feeling of choking, chest pain or discomfort, nausea, upset stomach, dizziness and chills. You may even feel that you are going crazy, are about to die or as though you are having an out of body experience. Excessive worry about when these attacks will happen next is not uncommon and often causes negative changes in lifestyle. For example, you may avoid leaving home or vigorous exercise.
Agoraphobia is a fear of public places or situations where escape would be difficult or embarrassing in the event of a panic attack (in fact, it usually occurs with panic disorder). Situations that you typically fear include being outside of the house alone, being in a crowd, being on a bridge or traveling in a bus, train or automobile. Usually the fear associated with these situations is so strong that you avoid these situations all together or suffer through them with intense distress.
Specific phobias are exaggerated fears about things that many of us are afraid of. Common phobias include animals, water, heights, needles, tunnels and bridges; however, just about anything can become a trigger for specific phobia. People with a specific phobia know that their fear is irrational, but are still very afraid.
Social Anxiety Disorder
Social anxiety disorder involves an intense fear of being embarrassed or evaluated negatively by other people. You may have difficulty eating in public, being introduced to other people, talking to authority figures, speaking in public. You may also fear that others will notice your physical signs of anxiety such as sweating, shaking or blushing. This fear of embarrassment leads you to avoid social situations and to become isolated. As with specific phobia, people with social anxiety disorder recognize that their fear is irrational.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
OCD is considered an anxiety disorder, as people affected by this mental illness experience severe anxiety as the result of obsessive thoughts or rituals that they know to be irrational. Obsessions are thoughts, images, or ideas that won't go away, are unwanted, and are extremely distressing or worrying ("What if I become infected with a deadly disease?" or "What if I molest a child or murder my partner?"). Compulsions are behaviours that have to be done over and over again to relieve anxiety. Compulsions are often related to obsessions.
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
PTSD can develop after being exposed to, or having witnessed, an extremely traumatic event in which you or someone else could have died or have been seriously injured. Common triggers include military combat, sexual or physical assault, being robbed, taken hostage, torture or automobile accidents. To be diagnosed with PTSD, your reaction must have also included intense feelings of helplessness or horror. Main symptoms include unwanted flashbacks or thoughts of the event, avoiding situations associated with the trauma and finally, increased arousal. For example, people with PTSD often startle very easily or have difficulty falling asleep. To be diagnosed with PTSD, these symptoms have to last at least one-month after the trauma although symptoms can appear weeks, months or years after the event.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
GAD is characterized by uncontrollable worry about many parts of your life including such things as finances, job security, safety of loved ones or performance at school. This uncontrollable worry lasts at least six months and is usually accompanied by a variety of other symptoms including feelings of restlessness or being on edge, becoming tired easily, difficulty concentrating, problems sleeping and muscle tension. Sometimes the worry can be so severe that you may experience panic attacks.
A Proper Diagnosis is Essential
While all anxiety disorders are characterized by either intense fear and/or anxiety, each disorder has specific symptoms. If you think that you, a family member or friend has anxiety disorder, it is important to consult a qualified health professional; safe and effective treatments are available but it is important to first get the right diagnosis and this can sometimes be complicated. Here are a few things that professionals keep in mind when making a diagnosis:
- We are all experience fear and anxiety from time to time. For this reason, you cannot be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder unless the fear, anxiety or physical symptoms cause severe distress and/or lead to real problems either at work or at home.
- There are a variety of substances whose effects can mimic the symptoms of anxiety disorders. For example, high doses of caffeine can cause symptoms that are nearly identical to panic disorder. Similarly, withdrawal from some substances, such as alcohol, can also cause symptoms that resemble anxiety disorders.
- Medical conditions such as hypothyroidism can cause symptoms that resemble anxiety disorders. It is important that physical causes be ruled out.
American Psychiatric Association. "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th ed., text revision" 2000 Washington, DC: Author.