The term ‘Anxiety’ can be used solely to describe an anxious condition - typified by feelings of worry, fear and unease - but is also used as an over-arching term to describe different types of anxiety disorder, such as; panic, phobias, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and generalised anxiety disorder (GAD).
Anxiety is something which everyone experiences to one degree or another at some time in their life; whether this is before a job interview, preparing for an exam, going into hospital, leaving home, etc. To this extent then anxiety is a normal human response. However, anxiety becomes problematic and becomes a ‘disorder’ when the worry becomes more constant and starts to interfere with how you want to live your life.
People who experience panic attacks describe being suddenly overwhelmed by a number of intense psychological and physical symptoms, including; fear, terror and apprehension, sweating, palpitations, trembling, nausea, breathlessness, chest pain and dizziness. Often physical symptoms can be misinterpreted as a heart attack due to their suddenness and intensity. In addition, often because the symptoms are intense, those who experience panic attacks can start to fear further panic attacks, which increases anxiety levels and can lead to avoidance of places or situations which they fear may trigger an attack.
A phobia is an intense or irrational fear of a specific object, situation, feeling, creature, etc. The fear associated with a phobia is extreme and a person with a phobia may go out of their way to avoid any contact with, or thoughts of, the source of the phobia. Common simple phobias include, fear of; flying, injections, dogs, dentists, blood spiders, snakes, etc.
The term ‘complex phobia’ covers agoraphobia and social phobia. Agoraphobia is commonly thought to refer to a fear of open spaces, however, this does not truly describe the impact or its complexity. The fear does relate to being in an open place - such as using public transport, in shops, standing in a queue, etc - however the key feature is the anxiety associated with being in a situation where escape or help might not be available should this be needed due to extreme anxiety or panic.
Social phobia is also referred to as ‘social anxiety disorder’. The difficulties here, often first present in teenage years and are typified by an overwhelming fear in relation to social situations. The fear is more extreme than shyness or worry about a social event. The fear precedes the event, is experienced during it and afterwards. Those with social phobia experience fear and are overly concerned with being judged by others, or that their behaviour will be criticised, ridiculed or cause embarrassment, which causes them to avoid social interactions.
Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
This form of anxiety is driven by frequent, unwanted, unpleasant thoughts, urges or images. Most people have unwanted or intrusive thoughts at times, e.g., questioning if they switched an appliance off earlier in the day, etc., but for those with OCD these can be persistent. The presence of such thoughts leads to anxiety and sometimes feelings of disgust or distress. In order to ‘neutralise' or dispel these feelings, someone with OCD will engage in a compulsion, which may be a behaviour or a mental act in order to relieve the distress. The compulsion however can be repetitive, disruptive to the person’s life and is often illogical, however the person with OCD feels compelled to carry it out ‘just in case’, for fear that if they omit this, then a negative consequence will arise.
Frequent obsessions include; fear of contamination, fear of harming oneself or others, a need for symmetry or order, etc. Whilst compulsive behaviours can include; repetitive hand washing, checking doors are locked, checking appliances are switched off, etc., counting, hoarding, seeking reassurance from others, repeating words or phrases in their head to counter obsessive thoughts, etc. For some with OCD, the compulsions can take up several hours and have a significant impact on everyday life.
Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD)
People with GAD feel anxious in relation to a number of situations and issues and are rarely anxiety-free. When one anxiety resolves, another emerges, often these anxieties are unrealistic, but are overwhelming. Sometimes GAD is referred to as ‘chronic worrying’ as the anxiety is seen as ‘free-floating’, i.e., it moves from one area to another, as opposed to being focussed on one concern. People with GAD report feeling nervous or constantly on edge and as a result can struggle to relax or concentrate and can feel irritable and tense.