A primal sensation innate to being human, anxiety is a normal reaction to stress and can be beneficial in some situations. In fact, anxiety can save our lives by alerting us to danger and helping us to prepare and pay attention.
However, anxiety disorders are different than the natural anxiety that occurs in our lives.
Anxiety refers to the anticipation of a future concern real or imagined, and is more associated with muscle tension and avoidance behavior. Fear is an emotional response to an immediate threat and is more associated with an in the moment fight or flight reaction--either staying to fight or leaving to escape danger. Once the danger passes, the fear usually does too. This is not the case with anxiety. Because anxiety is an anticipation of something yet to come it can follow the individual around through their every waking hour or even minute.
This means that anxiety disorder can cause people to try and avoid situations that worsen their symptoms. Job performance, school work, and personal relationships can be affected.
In general, for a person to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, the fear or anxiety must:
- Be out of proportion to the situation or age-inappropriate.
- Hinder a person's ability to function normally.
There are several types of anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, specific phobias, social anxiety disorder, and separation anxiety.
General Anxiety Disorder
Generalized anxiety disorder is a persistent and excessive worry that interferes with daily activities. This ongoing worry and tension may be accompanied by feelings of restlessness, feeling on edge or easily fatigued, difficulty concentrating, muscle tension, or problems sleeping. Often the worries focus on everyday things such as job responsibilities, family health, or minor matters such as chores, car repairs, or appointments.
Panic disorder at its core is defined by recurrent panic attacks. Panic attacks are a combination of physical and psychological distress. During an attack several of these symptoms occur in combination:
- Palpitations, pounding heart or rapid heart rate
- Trembling or shaking
- Feeling of shortness of breath or smothering sensations
- Chest pain
- Feeling dizzy, light-headed or faint
- Feeling of choking
- Numbness or tingling
- Chills or hot flashes
- Nausea or abdominal pains
- Feeling detached
- Fear of losing control
- Fear of dying
Because symptoms in a panic disorder are so severe, many people who experience panic attacks may think they are having a heart attack. Panic attacks may be expected, especially in response to a feared object, or they can be unexpected, seeming to occur without reason. Panic attacks also may occur with other mental disorders such as depression or PTSD.
A specific phobia is an excessive and persistent fear of a specific object, situation or activity that is generally not harmful. Patients know their fear is excessive, but they can't overcome it. These fears cause such distress that some people go to extreme lengths to avoid it. Examples of this are fears of flying or fears of spiders.
Agoraphobia is the fear of being in situations where escape may be difficult. Different than claustrophobia, agoraphobia has more to do with a lack of control and the inability to get out vs the size of the space.
Social Anxiety Disorder
A person with a social anxiety disorder has significant anxiety and discomfort about being in social situations where they might be embarrassed, humiliated, rejected or looked down on. People with this disorder will try to avoid social interactions at all costs. Common fears associated with a social anxiety disorder are fear of public speaking, fear of meeting new people, etc. The fear or anxiety causes them problems in their daily lives and lasts at least six months.
Separation Anxiety Disorder
A person with a separation anxiety disorder has excessive fears and anxieties focused on their separation from those with whom he or she is attached. The feeling is beyond what is appropriate for the person's age (for instance, this is normal in children up to a certain age and point) and causes problems functioning. A person with this type of anxiety disorder may be persistently worried about losing the person closest to him or her, they may be reluctant or refuse to go to sleep away from home or without that person, or may experience nightmares about separation. Physical symptoms of distress often develop in childhood, but symptoms can carry through adulthood.