What is Anxiety Disorder?
An anxiety disorder is more than just being too anxious, and/or anxious more often than other people.
There are formal diagnostic criteria for an anxiety disorder, depending on the type of anxiety disorder – but it is probably a good rule of thumb to say that if your anxiety is severe enough and frequent enough to interfere with your everyday life, you most likely have an anxiety disorder.
If this is the case, then you should see a medical practitioner to get a proper diagnosis – because anxiety symptoms can be similar to symptoms of other medical problems, such as hyperthyroidism. Before diagnosing anxiety disorder, your doctor should send you for tests to eliminate other medical possibilities.
But if you are suffering from an acute anxiety condition, it's more often the case that you've mistaken it for a medical condition such as asthma or a heart attack. Maybe you've already been to a doctor or the emergency room to have it checked out (if not, you should). An acute anxiety attack in particular is scary enough to feel life-threatening – and definitely should only be diagnosed after other possibilities are eliminated.
If you are diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, you shouldn't feel embarrassed or ashamed or as though you are weak – there are real biological and genetic causes for an anxiety disorder. The good news is that it is definitely possible to manage and overcome an anxiety disorder, even a severe anxiety disorder – and many people have done just that.
Depending on your symptoms and the type of anxiety disorder, there are different strategies and techniques you can use to overcome an anxiety disorder: there are cognitive techniques (CBT) for anxiety, there are breathing techniques for anxiety, and there are mindfulness techniques for anxiety, as well as other relaxation techniques and meditation techniques for anxiety.
You might want to try some of these on your own, or try one of the excellent programs that takes a comprehensive approach. If you feel the need for more personal help, and you have medical insurance to cover it, you may want to find a qualified psychologist or other therapist for individual sessions.
There are also supplements you can use to overcome anxiety without medication.
If your doctor recommends medication, you should check out this information about medication for anxiety.
Here are the main categories of anxiety disorder:
Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
GAD involves persistent & excessive worry, not associated with any specific fears or circumstances. This person is chronically tense and anxious, feels apprehensive without any real cause (or way out of proportion to the actual problem), and may suffer from any of the symptoms of anxiety. The feeling of anxiety may fluctuate but never really goes away.
With Panic Disorder a person will experience recurring panic attacks (anxiety attacks) – episodes of intense fear that may last several minutes or longer, and that have no apparent trigger or cause. Between the panic attacks, the person usually does not feel particularly anxious – although the fear of having the next panic attack at an unexpected moment can itself lead to anxiety. Often, this will result in Agoraphobia – a fear of going out.
Agoraphobia is a fear of being in a situation from which escape will not be possible, often resulting from a panic attack and maintained by the fear of having another panic attack. The person with agoraphobia will usually manage the anxiety by avoiding going out as much as possible – making it difficult to get over the fear.
Social anxiety disorder (or social phobia)
While many of us have a degree of social anxiety (fear of being judged negatively in some way), this becomes Social Anxiety Disorder when at a level of extreme distress – sometimes to the point of panic attack. Like Agoraphobia, avoidance of the feared situation can make it much more difficult to overcome – and worse, it can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy because the person with Social Anxiety Disorder is often awkward in a social situation, and may find it difficult to develop good social skills. The good news is that it is indeed possible to overcome Social Anxiety Disorder and learn good social skills.
Specific phobias, such as fear of flying or driving
With a true phobia, a person experiences very high levels of fear or even panic, but only when confronted by the specific situation or stimulus. For many phobias, eg a spider phobia, it is possible to avoid the object of the phobia without too much disruption to everyday life. However, for other phobias, such as fear of flying or fear of driving (and for agoraphobia and social phobia - see above) trying to avoid the feared situation can come to rule your life. Simple phobias (with a very well defined trigger for the anxiety) can be the easiest to treat, if the person is motivated to do so.
Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
OCD is defined by persistent, intrusive and unwanted thoughts (obsessions). These thoughts can be very distressing, and lead to various compulsive behaviours (personal rituals) that in some way function to keep the fears at bay. A person with OCD usually recognises the fears and thoughts as being irrational, but this in itself is not enough to stop them. OCD has its own specific methods of treatment – though any other techniques that can relieve anxiety will also be helpful, and will provide a good start to full treatment.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
PTSD is a long-lasting severe anxiety response to a traumatic event. It includes flash-backs and other severe anxiety symptoms that persist months after the event. There are some excellent therapies to help you overcome PTSD, and it is recommended for a person with PTSD to get professional help.
Doctors may also sometimes diagnose Acute Stress Reaction or Adjustment Disorder. These are useful medical labels (useful in the medical context, for medical insurance purposes and so on) for a normal reaction to an abnormal event, one that is not severe or prolonged enough to qualify as PTSD.
Acute Stress Reaction refers to the immediate reaction to a traumatic event. This might include any of the symptoms of severe anxiety. If the symptoms persist for more than a few months, the diagnosis may change to PTSD.
Adjustment Disorder refers to the emotional disturbance, with stress and anxiety symptoms, following an upheaval in your life such as bereavement, divorce, illness, change of job or move to a new location. Even a good change can be stressful – but adjustment disorder usually follows a change that is experienced as bad, with some sort of major loss.
Although Acute Stress Reaction and Adjustment Disorder are reactions to events, and will most likely subside over time, it is still a good idea to take some action – to get help, to use some self-care and self-help strategies, maybe practice some of the stress management and meditation techniques for anxiety that we give you.