Anxiety is often thought of today as a problem, but it’s a natural human response to fear. Anxiety prepares your body to protect yourself by activating your fight-or-flight response, a hormonal and physical reaction that gets the body ready to deal with a threat by fighting or running away.
Everyone will feel anxious at some point in their lives. They may be worried about how they’ll look during an important presentation at work, or they may feel incredibly nervous about the first date with their crush. Many students experience test anxiety, which makes it difficult for them to concentrate and do well on exams no matter how well they know the material.
When it comes to mental health though, anxiety takes on a different meaning. From a psychological standpoint, anxiety is an enduring sense of fear and/or worry that doesn’t have a direct cause and doesn’t let up over time.
An anxiety disorder is not the same thing as just being anxious or nervous. In fact, there are several distinct types of anxiety disorders that a person can be diagnosed with, including generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and social anxiety disorder.
When a person exhibits symptoms that interfere with their everyday life, they’re said to have a disorder. Psychological disorders aren’t able to be diagnosed by anyone but mental health professionals, and there are specific diagnostic criteria that must be met in order for a diagnosis to be given.
However, anyone can learn about the signs of an anxiety disorder to gauge their own symptoms. Understanding the symptoms can be an incredible comfort to someone who has suffered for months or even years. Many people who aren’t aware of anxiety disorders just think they’re born to feel this way and that it’s their fault. Friends and family who aren’t aware of disorders may even try to “help” someone by telling them to just not think about their worries.
Anyone who has ever experienced an anxiety disorder, however, can tell you that there is no way to just “not think about it.” Anxiety can’t be turned off, but it can be treated. The best thing to do is start by learning about what defines an anxiety disorder and what kinds of disorders are out there.
Psychologists and counselors use a book called the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders” (DSM) to evaluate a person’s symptoms and diagnose them with an anxiety disorder. The DSM is currently on its fifth edition, so it’s called the DSM-5. The DSM-5 recognizes 12 different anxiety-related disorders, including substance-induced anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorders and anxiety related to trauma or stress.
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) involves a continuous worry about many different things. People with GAD may not even know why they’re anxious at times and just live with a constant sense of unease and fear. Many times, people with GAD are fixated on worries related to their well-being, be it their relationships, money or work performance.
GAD can be related to real concerns. Many of the problems that trigger a person’s anxiety are legitimate sources of stress, but their worry is often disproportionate to the situation. People with GAD may also have a tendency to imagine the worst-case scenario throughout their life and become incredibly anxious and stressed at the possibility of it happening no matter how unlikely.
GAD might make someone feel alone, but it’s far from uncommon. At least 3.1 percent of the entire U.S. adult population has a generalized anxiety disorder, and women are twice as likely to be diagnosed.
People with a generalized anxiety disorder may experience the onset all at once, or they could struggle with it throughout their lives, having periods that are anxiety-free and others where they can barely function.
The exact cause of GAD isn’t known; psychologists believe that a person’s unique background, family history, and life experiences play a role. Studies show that children raised by a parent with an anxiety disorder are at a higher risk of developing one in adulthood.
In order to be diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, you must feel excessively anxious for at least six months and feel anxious on more days than not. You must also have at least three of the following symptoms:
A deep-rooted and excessive worry when being separated from someone important or when leaving home is a separation anxiety disorder. Anyone can be affected by this, but the disorder is most commonly diagnosed in children. Separation anxiety is a normal developmental milestone for babies around 8 months old, but it typically resolves within a few months after this.
Normal separation anxiety among toddlers and young children can be treated with practice, patience and lots of reassurance. Separation disorder is not able to be resolved so easily, and children with this disorder may not even be able to adjust to school because their fear of being away from their parents is so overwhelming.
Some signs of separation anxiety disorder are:
Separation anxiety must last at least four weeks in children and at least six months in adults in order to be diagnosed.
Another anxiety disorder found in children called selective mutism is a persistent inability to speak in social situations. Kids with selective mutism will often remain silent in school and extracurricular activities even though they can speak perfectly fine at home or in other comfortable environments.
Many parents and relatives of children with selective mutism might even describe them as talkative. When a child becomes anxious and enters an unfamiliar environment, however, they stop speaking altogether.
It’s natural for children to experience a reluctance to speak around strangers, but they’ll usually talk when they need to, such as when they’re called in the class by a teacher or asked a question by a friend. Selective mutism is diagnosed when there is a consistent refusal to speak in social situations despite being able to speak normally at home. The refusal to speak must also have a negative impact on the child’s daily life. To be diagnosed with selective mutism, a child must exhibit a speech refusal for at least one month outside of the first month of starting school.
Excessive fear of being embarrassed or humiliated in social situations is a social anxiety disorder, a condition that can prevent a person from socializing and forming relationships. Unlike generalized anxiety disorder, this condition is related specifically to social encounters.
Socially anxious people may avoid social situations altogether, and the condition must cause significant distress in their personal life to be classified as a disorder. There is a major difference between having a social anxiety disorder and simply being shy. A person who is shy is just reluctant to speak around someone they don’t know, but a socially anxious person fears that they will do something embarrassing and people will mock, ridicule or dislike them. Avoidance is a coping strategy for people with this condition, but this often does more harm than good.
There are two types of social anxiety disorder: generalized and specific. Generalized cases are marked by fear of speaking in any social situation, be it ordering food at a restaurant or asking a co-worker for a pencil. Specific social anxiety only occurs during certain situations, such as eating in public or speaking to authority figures. Symptoms must last for at least six months to be diagnosed.
The above disorders are some of the most common, but there are still others that people deal with every day. These include agoraphobia, which is an intense fear of situations where escape may not be possible, and obsessive-compulsive disorder, which involves persistent and distressing thoughts that a person tries to alleviate through repeated actions called compulsions. Although most people view it as a unique condition, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is also a form of anxiety.
The good news is that while many people struggle for months or years before diagnosis, anxiety disorders are treatable. Generalized anxiety disorder studies show that relaxation techniques and cognitive behavioral therapy can improve symptoms and continue to help for up to two years post-treatment.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is the most common form of anxiety treatment. This therapy technique helps people identify their unhelpful thoughts and change their behaviors accordingly. Anxious people who undergo CBT will learn to recognize when a thought is irrational or exaggerated and become more in sync with their own symptoms.
The purpose of therapy isn’t to teach someone that feeling anxious is bad; in fact, a little anxiety can be helpful. It tells people something is wrong, makes them more alert and allows them to effectively find solutions to their problems. However, people with a disorder are often paralyzed by their symptoms and become trapped in an endless loop of fear, worry and isolation to avoid triggers and feel safe.
Even if you can’t see a therapist right away, there are many coping strategies you can try on your own. Deep-breathing exercises have been found to reduce the severity of symptoms and prevent anxiety attacks.
During feelings of panic, a technique called “grounding” can help you slow down racing thoughts, calm yourself and bring your mind back to the present through the use of your five senses.
Many people find that adopting coping strategies can significantly reduce their symptoms and make life much easier. Even though you can’t control how your brain reacts to a situation, you can regain control over your responses and make it through your day.
If you find that your symptoms don’t let up after trying to handle them on your own, talking to a therapist can provide a more personalized, in-depth form of treatment. You may even be prescribed anxiety medication to reduce the severity of your symptoms, decrease panic attacks and become more stable as you work through therapy. There is no shame in seeking help, and