Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety Disorders

Written by Violaine Guéritault, Ph.D.

You are surely familiar with the term anxiety. You may even be using that term when referring to your own experience. However, it is more than likely that you are not doing so in a positive manner because you don’t like the way anxiety makes you feel. Be assured that no one likes to feel anxious, and yet we all experience anxiety from time to time because anxiety has an adaptive function and therefore it contributes to our survival as a species. Anxiety is a natural and normal physiological response to stress, to a danger, or a threat. It’s our body’s way of letting us know that something isn’t right and that a certain situation is requiring our full attention. Usually, this normal state of arousal disappears when the threat that triggered it goes away.

Things get more complicated when the anxiety response becomes overwhelming and persistent to the point that it severely interferes with daily activities. When this happens, we may be dealing with what is referred to as an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders are different from feelings of anxiousness or nervousness. They are characterized by excessive fear and anxiety in the absence of real danger or threats. Anxiety disorders can worsen over time and cause you to avoid certain places or situations that may trigger these negative responses. There are different types of anxiety disorders, each can affect someone physically and psychologically in various ways.

Anxiety Disorder Types and Symptoms

1. Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) – GAD involves being excessively and constantly worried about anything related to daily life activities (i.e. relationships, friends, school, academic performance, etc.) Physical symptoms associated with GAD are restlessness, nervousness, fatigue, inability to focus, and sleep disturbances.

2. Panic disorder – In this case, excessive anxiety occurs in waves characterized by recurrent panic attacks that combine physical and psychological distress. During a panic attack, you may experience the following symptoms:

    • Palpitations
    • Sweating
    • Shaking or trembling
    • Feelings of shortness of breath/rapid breathing
    • Chest pain
    • Feeling dizzy, light-headed, or faint
    • Numbness or tingling
    • Chills or hot flashes
    • Nausea, chest, or abdominal pains
    • Fear of losing control
    • Fear of dying

3. Phobias, specific phobias – Involve excessive, irrational, and persistent fears of specific objects or situations that are usually not harmful, such as darkness, bugs, fear of flying, or being in an elevator, etc. People are aware their fear is excessive but they can’t overcome it and often go to extreme lengths to avoid what they fear.

4. Agoraphobia – An irrational and intense fear of being in public spaces where escape may be difficult or embarrassing, or where help might not be available in the event of the onset of panic symptoms. Such public spaces include:

    • Using public transportation (i.e. subway, bus, train, airplane)
    • Being in open or enclosed spaces
    • Standing in line or being in a crowd
    • Being outside the home alone

The intensity of the fear is disproportionate to the actual situation and causes a great deal of problems in daily functioning. If left untreated, agoraphobia can become so serious that a person may not be able to leave their house anymore.

5. Social Anxiety Disorder – Someone who suffers from social anxiety disorder experiences extreme fear, anxiety, and discomfort about being humiliated, embarrassed, rejected, or looked down upon in social interactions such as public speaking, meeting new people, or eating and drinking in public.

6. Separation Anxiety Disorder – A person suffering from this disorder experiences excessive fear and anxiety when separated from someone they are very close and attached to.

Other Related Disorders

There are other mental disorders that do not formally fall into the anxiety disorder category, but that are regarded as being closely related to it because extreme fear and anxiety are part of their core symptoms. Among those you will find:

  1. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – It may develop in people who have experienced or have witnessed a traumatic event that caused them extreme emotional distress. These can include a serious accident, abuse, a natural disaster, or an attack of some sort that may have threatened their or someone else’s life, caused serious injury, or death.
  2. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) – OCD occurs when a person has recurring, unwanted thoughts, ideas, and sensations (obsessions) that drive them to adopt certain repetitive behaviors (compulsions) such as checking on things, cleaning, washing hands, counting, tapping, and repeating certain words in order to reduce anxiety.

If you have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, know that you are not alone. Were you aware that anxiety disorders are the most common mental disorder in the United States, with 42.5 million people who experience an anxiety disorder in any given year? And did you know that anxiety disorders are the most common mental health disorders of childhood and adolescence, with nearly 1 in 3 adolescents (31.9%) who will meet criteria for an anxiety disorder by age 18? It’s also interesting to note that all anxiety disorder subtypes are more frequent in girls than boys. You see, you are not alone.

Supporting Yourself

But what if after reading these lines, you feel you may be experiencing the symptoms of an anxiety disorder but you’ve never talked to an adult or a professional about it? What should you do?

First and foremost, remember that you’re in good company with many other adolescents who go through similar difficulties. This means you should never feel ashamed or embarrassed about what you feel. Instead, make room for self-compassion and self-care.