Anxiety Disorders: A Guide to the Types of Anxiety and How to Cope
We’ve all felt the cold touch of anxiety at some point in our lives—whether it was before going on stage for a school play, before taking a big exam at university, or when we are sat in the waiting room before an interview for a great new job.
Anxiety is something that affects everyone and is a part of the normal set of emotional reactions humans use to navigate our physical, social, and emotional environments. However, for many people, anxiety can become out of control and cause serious problems in personal, academic, and professional lives.
For most people, anxiety is something that happens occasionally, typically in response to a unique stressor, and recedes once the event in question has passed. But for those of us who are living with anxiety disorders, the sweaty palms and racing heartbeat become nearly constant companions.
What is Anxiety
According to the American Psychological Association (APA) Anxiety is defined as “an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes.”
A generalized term for various conditions which cause worry, fear, apprehension, and nervousness, Anxiety disorders can range from mild to severe and can cause serious disturbances in the basic activities we undertake each day.
The most basic function of anxiety is as a survival response, part of the fight-or-flight mode. When confronted by a predator in the wild (or an angry boss who needs a report submitted immediately) the anxiety response is our body’s way of setting off alarm bells in our brain and preparing our body for a dangerous situation. Our bodies fill with adrenaline, our heartrate increases, and we become increasingly sensitivity to one’s surroundings.
While this anxiety response can be extremely beneficial in the context of an ancient predator, when our body is constantly in a state of heightened awareness and anxiety, we begin to see a number of symptoms that have a drastically negative effect on our physical and mental health.
Signs & symptoms of Anxiety
Each anxiety disorder comes with its own set of symptoms. However, the most common overall symptoms of anxiety include, but are not limited to:
- Back pain
- Easily scared or startled
- Blood clots
- Muscle tension
- Avoidance of situations that cause nervousness
- Increased heartbeat or irregular heartbeat
- Constant feelings of worry, even without stressors
What causes Anxiety Disorders
- Brain chemistry. One study found that there are some “chinks in the brain chemistry” that make some people more susceptible to being anxious than others.
- Environmental factors and everyday factors such as family, school, jobs, traumatic events, relationships, and finances. One study even found a relationship between feeling anxious and high-altitudes (due to a shortage of oxygen). Everyday factors are the most common triggers of excessive anxiety.
- Medical factors. These can include the side effects from certain medications, stress from underlying medical conditions, or symptoms from another medical condition.
- Withdrawl or use of illicit substances such as drugs and alcohol.
Types of Anxiety Disorders
Anxiety disorders occur when our body’s reaction is out of proportion to what would be normally required to deal with the current environment. Anxiety disorders can present as an extreme overreaction to a single stressor, or an overly extended reaction to multiple minor stressors over a period of time.
These disorders can involve mental symptoms such as recurring concerns and intrusive thoughts, as well as physical symptoms such as increased heartbeat and shortness of breath.
Here are some of the most common disorders related to anxiety:
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is one of the most common anxiety disorders. It’s a chronic disorder that includes long-lasting, excessive worry about nonspecific life situations, events, and objects.
The fight-or-flight response is a physiological reaction that is responsible for getting us out of a dangerous situation. Our brain goes into alert mode and our sympathetic nervous system reacts and activates the release of chemicals such as norepinephrine. These chemicals are responsible for regulating our blood sugar and blood pressure, reduce activity (and energy output) in our digestive system, and increase our heart rate.
While this response is useful in situations where we are at risk of death or bodily harm, and which have definite endpoints (such as once the predator has been evaded), the physical changes can have dramatic effects on our body when we are constantly dealing with a flight or fight reaction.
Imagine your heart racing, shaking, and sweating all over, but instead of it lasting for a few minutes, it is a constant state of over-alertness. People diagnosed with any type of anxiety disorder live in a vicious cycle. People with generalized anxiety disorder, however, take it a step further where they aren’t feeling anxiety to a particular stimulus or event, but to a great number of them.
Social anxiety disorder is the fear of being judged negatively by other people while in social situations- including fear of public embarrassment, fear of intimacy, stage fright, and fear of humiliation. Sometimes, one’s fear can be so big that they avoid social situations and human contact to the point that it interferes with their everyday living.
A persistent fear of one or more social or performance situations in which the person is exposed to unfamiliar people or to possible scrutiny by others. The individual fears that he or she will act in a way (or show anxiety symptoms) that will be embarrassing and humiliating.
The avoidance, anxious anticipation, or distress in the feared social or performance situation(s) interferes significantly with the person’s normal routine, occupational (academic) functioning, or social activities or relationships, or there is marked distress about having the phobia.
People face problems with social anxiety on a daily basis, especially in a contemporary world where all the up-to-date details about people are on display for everybody to see. People face scrutiny and judgment on an everyday basis, but, for some, this “inspection” of their persona gets to be a little too much. Imagine what it is like living with social anxiety and experiencing those unpleasant and negative emotions every time you interact with others.
In the United States, social anxiety disorder is the third largest psychological disorder in the country, after depression and alcoholism. It is estimated that about 7% of the population suffers from some form of social anxiety at the present time. The lifetime prevalence rate for developing social anxiety disorder is 13-14%.
Separation anxiety disorder is known for its high levels of uneasiness when separated from someone or someplace that provides comfort, security, or safety. It can lead to panic disorder if severe enough.
Separation anxiety, also known as separation anxiety disorder, is the fear and distress that one feels as a child and an adult when they think about being separated from home or from the people they are attached to. Everyone experiences anxiety but what makes separation anxiety different is when the anxiety exceeds what would be expected at someone’s developmental level and age.
Separation anxiety is what helped keep our ancestors alive and it’s how children learn how to master their surroundings.
Within the U.S., separation anxiety is most common with people under the age of 12. The numbers range between .09% and 1.9% of children and 1.6% within adolescents who have separation anxiety. The condition is equal among both males and females.
There aren’t many things as frustrating as feeling exhausted all day and feeling completely awake at night. When your brain doesn’t care that your home safe under your cozy blankets and keeps working on your to-do list or worrying about random things, that’s known as sleep anxiety. Sleep anxiety is a state of being unable to sleep due to excessive worry, stress, and anxiety.
Over 40 million Americans deal with long-term sleeping disorders while an additional 20 million Americans have reported having occasional sleeping issues according to the National Institute of Health. That’s about 18% of the population.
Stress and anxiety can be two of the biggest causes for a lack of sleep- especially since the two go hand-in-hand. Anxiety in itself isn’t a bad thing, like pain it simply signals that something isn’t right. Anxiety is an emotion that wakes up us and feeling well-rested has shown to help us fight against anxiety. However, the opposite is also true- a lack of sleep and insomnia feeds anxiety which keeps us awake at night.
A phobia is an irrational fear of a certain object or situation. Phobias are different from other fearing disorders because it relates to something in specific. Typically, the fear is irrational, but the person who feels the phobia doesn’t really have control over it.
Panic disorder is a sudden or brief attack of intense terror. These attacks occur and escalate quickly. They tend to peak after 10 minutes, but they may last for hours. They can cause confusion, nausea, dizziness, shaking, and difficulty breathing. A gene was recently found that shows susceptibility to panic disorders.
Anxiety attacks are defined as a sudden, isolated intense fear or distress. They begin abruptly and reach their peak ten minutes later. Their total duration is estimated to be between 15 and 30 minutes.
The nervous system, during these anxiety attacks, sends danger signals at inappropriate times. What does this mean? That anxiety and panic are felt in situations where there are no real reasons to feel them. Anxiety attacks differ from panic attacks in that the latter is much more intense.
Anxiety attacks are one of the most frequent anxiety disorders: between 10% and 20% of the population has suffered anxiety attacks at some point in their lives. Anyone is likely to experience an anxiety attack, especially in situations of stress or psychological vulnerability.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is known for repetitive, disturbing, and intrusive thoughts and actions. People who suffer from OCD usually are aware that their compulsions are irrational, but their goal is to alleviate their uneasiness.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a form of anxiety that comes from trauma. It often leads to flashbacks and people tend to change their behavior in order to avoid the flashbacks which are triggers to feeling anxious.
6 tips for managing Anxiety
- Relaxation techniques that help relax the physical and mental stressors. These techniques can include meditation, yoga, deep breathing exercises, and baths.
- Manage stress by learning about potential stress triggers and not procrastinating. Make sure to take time off of work or studying to relax.
- Try to be more optimistic by replacing the negative thoughts with positive ones.
- Exercise is proven to improve self-image and release brain chemicals that help us feel positive and less anxious.
- Reduce your sugar intake. Studies show that people with high sugar diets have higher levels of depression and uneasiness.
- A support network that is supportive, such as a friend or family member, to talk with when you’re feeling down or anxious.
Diagnosis of Anxiety
Anxiety is diagnosed by a medical professional. Typically, the doctor takes a careful look at family history and medical history as well as performing a physical examination. In some cases, laboratory tests are necessary to provide information about medical conditions that could be causing the anxiety symptoms.
In order to be diagnosed with a generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), the most common type, someone must:
- Have difficulty with controlling the worry
- Feel excessive worry about several different events on more days than not for at least six months.
- Have at least three anxious symptoms on more days than not during the last six months. These symptoms can include irritability, restlessness, difficulty sleeping, fatigue, muscle tension, and difficulty concentrating.
- Symptoms that interfere with daily life to the point that the person misses school or work.
After receiving his undergraduate degree in psychology, Scott went on to work as a teacher and educational counselor while working towards his master’s degree. He has spent several years working with children and adults and has personal experience with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder, Dyslexia, and Depression.