Anxiety can be useful...
Everyone feels anxious from time to time: it is a normal part of our survival software. When we sense a threat our heart pumps faster and our breath gets quicker to supply our muscles with the energy we need to fight or flee. This process is what kept our ancestors alive when they faced predators such as tigers and bears, and today is what primes us to give our best performance in sport, education or business.
Unfortunately, for some people, this software can go awry – the warnings come too often, or are out of proportion to the nature of the threat. This can happen at different times and in different ways for different people, but usually follows a recognisable pattern. The effects can be devastating, stopping one’s ability to perform daily tasks, isolating us from friends and family and, if untreated, may result in the development of a condition such as depression.
Here we discuss the signs of some of the most common types of anxiety disorder, to help you identify if there might be a problem.
Generalised anxiety disorder is what we tend to think of when we talk about ‘anxiety’. It is characterized by persistent feelings of worry, dread, or fear, lasting six months or more. It is often accompanied by physical symptoms such as sweating, dizziness, muscle tension, racing heartbeat, and/or shortness of breath.
Some people also find that they feel more irritable or restless than they would be normally, and many have difficulties sleeping and/ or concentrating. These feelings are difficult to control, and may seem out of proportion to the situation at hand, or might even appear to come on for no reason at all.
With generalised anxiety, the symptoms occur so frequently that they can soon come to feel routine. However, that doesn’t mean it has to stay that way: there are many treatments are available to help tackle GAD’s day-to-day impact, allowing you to live a fuller and more active life, from psychological therapies to pharmacological treatments. Also, know that you are not alone: generalised anxiety affects about 5% of the population over the course of their lifetime, and is particularly common among women.
Panic disorder differs from generalised anxiety in that symptoms come and go quite suddenly, in the form of a panic attack. Panic attacks are intense and frightening experiences in which anxiety builds quickly, often bringing a sense of impending doom, heart attack or death.
In panic disorder, these can occur at any time, in any place, but worries of having an attack may be more persistent. If a panic attack occurs predictably, this may form part of a phobia, such as agoraphobia (see below).
To qualify as panic disorder, four or more of the following symptoms must be present:
- palpitations/ accelerated heart rate
- shortness of breath
- feelings of choking
- chest pain/ discomfort
- nausea/ abdominal discomfort
- feeling dizzy/ lightheaded
- chills or heat sensations
- numbness/ tingling sensations
- feeling that you, or the word, are not real (derealisation) or feeling detached from oneself (depersonalisation)
- fear of losing control
- fear of dying
Like GAD, approximately 5% of the population will experience panic disorder over the course of their lifetime. Symptoms tend to come on in the late teens-early twenties, and as with most anxiety disorders, women are more frequently affected than men.
As the name suggests, a specific phobia is the fear of a specific object or situation.
Common fears include certain animals and insects, blood, needles, heights, and flying. To be deemed a phobia, the fear must be considered disproportionate to the threat posed by the object or situation. For example, fear of a loose, menacing-looking dog would be quite justified, whereas a pervasive fear of all dogs that extends to images on the television might not.
Most people with phobias go out of their way to avoid encountering situations that could trigger their symptoms, but occasionally this is not possible. In these cases, the situation can be endured, but gives rise to an intense anxiety reaction, which interferes with your normal functioning. Whilst very distressing, phobias are easily treated using psychological therapies, and do not usually require medication.
Social anxiety is a form of phobia relating to being around people. This can be in the context of social situations generally, or more specifically, for example, when giving a performance or speaking up in a group. However, this is more than mere shyness or nerves: being in the feared situation must cause you intense anxiety, giving rise to significant distress or impairment to your day-to-day functioning.
The symptoms common to specific phobias also apply here: quickening heart rate, nausea, sweating, and so on. It tends to present during the teenage years, and is among the most common of anxiety disorders, affecting approximately 13% of the population at some point in their life.
Due to its impact on day-to-day functioning, social anxiety can be extremely restrictive, so it is advisable to seek professional support as early as possible.
Anxiety disorders are a common, but serious mental illness, surrounded by stigma and misunderstanding – perhaps because at times, we all feel anxious (but we don’t all have an anxiety disorder). There is no shame in seeking help for an anxiety disorder and often they go hand in hand with depression (depression and anxiety is the most common mental health condition in the UK).
Help is available and seeking it early will significantly increase the rates of recovery. If you think you might be suffering from anxiety, call our knowledgeable triage team on 0203 326 9160 to see how we can help.
Clinical Partners is the UK’s largest private mental health partnership, helping children, adults, families and organisations nationwide.
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