by Laura Geftman, LCSW
Everyone will experience anxiety from time to time. It can be difficult to tell the difference between regular anxiety and diagnosable anxiety conditions. So it’s important to know the difference.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is an important basic survival function we all use as a coping skill. It’s your body’s natural response to stress. Everyone experiences anxiety at some point of their lives. It’s also a very normal response to stressful life events. It’s like an alarm system that get activated when we feel danger or threat.
A natural human reaction, anxiety is reflected in our bodies and minds. We feel a physical sensation when our bodies react to danger like:
- faster heartbeat
- panting or breathing faster
- tense muscles
- sweaty palms
- queasy stomach
- trembling hands or legs
These reactions are caused by a rush of adrenaline and other chemicals that prepare the body to deal with threats. Bodily changes can be mild to extreme. Ordinary anxiety comes and goes. It doesn’t interfere with your everyday life.
When anxiety is considered disordered
Anxiety can interfere with us doing our best. When anxiety is with you all the time, too much of it can cause people to feel overwhelmed, tongue-tied, or incapable. It may prevent you from taking an elevator, crossing a street or even leaving your home.
Anxiety disorders involve too much anxiety causing people to feel preoccupied, distracted, tense, and always on alert. When considering your experience of anxiety, it’s important to know and recognize when too much anxiety is too much. That is, when anxiety becomes disordered and should be evaluated by a mental health professional for mental health support.
Types of Anxiety Disorders
The following is a description of each of the anxiety disorders mental health professionals commonly diagnose.
•Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) This anxiety disorder is the most commonly diagnosed. This is a disruption in how your brain controls the signals it uses to identify danger and initiate action to help avoid it. GAD is actually when you brain signally doesn’t work properly. Your brain is actually experiencing a danger signal when there is no danger.
GAD is diagnosed when excessive anxiety and worry about everyday events. It’s not just one experience of this but over a prolonged period of time. Therefore someone with GAD can no longer control their worry. A person struggling with GAD constantly feels tense or on edge even when there’s no threat. This kind of ongoing worry causes serious emotional distress and creates difficulty at school or work, and in relationships. These feelings of anxiety usually also have physical symptoms including headaches, nausea, shaking, sweating, aches, and pains.
•Obsessive Compulsive disorder (OCD) There are two part to this anxiety disorder- the obsession and the compulsion. Obsessions are intrusive and persistent thoughts, images or urges. Compulsions are repeated behaviors performed in order to manage the anxiety caused by the obsession. Obsessions and compulsions significantly interfere with a person’s daily living and cause a great deal of distress.
Obsessions tend to be thoughts, whereas compulsions tend to be behaviors. Obsessions are continued thoughts or ruminations. Common compulsions include counting, touching, washing, and checking.
Those struggling with OCD are generally aware that their obsessions are irrational and/or senseless. However they are not able to control their obsessions nor compulsions. The activities of OCD vary in each person’s experience.
•Social Anxiety (SAD) It is perfectly acceptable to be anxious during social situations. However someone struggling with SAD experiences overwhelming anxiety engaging in usual social situations. The fear and anxiety experienced is disproportionate to the experience, and can evoke feelings of loneliness and sadness. When exposed to a social situation, someone with SAD is so afraid of being negatively judged or evaluated that is significantly interferes with their ability to function. SAD is when certain social or performance situations (giving a speech, meeting new people, going to a new place) are avoided due to substantial fear. That fear is generally of being embarrassed or judged by others.
Those struggling with SAD tend to avoid everyday social situations like shopping, dining in restaurants, speaking up in class or at work, using a public bathroom, etc… Fears associated with SAD are generally recognized as unreasonable but can be extremely difficult to manage.
•Panic Disorder (PD) When you’re in danger, your body naturally and rapidly initiates a reaction. The brain responds when sensing danger and activates the areas of the brain designed to protect you. Generally you experience a fight or flight response. The brain either prepares you to “fight” the perceived danger or create a “flight” to escape from it. This is best describes panic. Panic can also be experienced when you’re not in danger. Those are the moments referred to as “panic attacks.”
As panic attacks are not in relation to any threat of danger, they can cause extreme distress and can be a significant problem. Once you have a panic attack and fear having another, your worry and anticipation can be cause for more. Sufferers also avoid certain situations to prevent having a panic attack and limit where they feel comfortable going. This anticipatory anxiety can cause a panic attack to occur without any obvious reason triggered only by feared situations or thoughts.
•Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) After an experience in which someone is seriously injured, threatened with injury or death or sees/hears about a stressful event, it can be difficult to switch off your stress response system. Seeing, experiencing or hearing about harmful, terrifying or upsetting situations can create a set of symptoms that can become very difficult to manage. These symptoms include feeling jittery, problems sleeping, trouble concentrating, emotional numbness, and increased anxiety. This kind of extreme stress can lead to PTSD.
When someone develops PTSD, their body has responded by producing hormones and chemicals preparing for danger, but they aren’t able to shut off this response once the threat has passed. Those suffering with PTSD can relive or re-experience the dramatic event in nightmares and/or flashbacks (disturbing mental images.)
Treating Anxiety Disorders
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, you are not “crazy.” Anxiety disorders are very common. Getting treatment and support can make all the difference. And it’s not as scary as you might think. It’s kinda like making a new friend but seeing a mental health professional (such as a social worker, counselor, psychologist or psychiatrist) is better than just talking to a friend. They are able help you figure out how to deal with your stress and/or anxiety like no friend can. Therapist help you discover strengths you didn’t know you had, and provide support that you’ve been needing.
Once you’ve been diagnosed, you can explore treatment options. For some, lifestyle changes are enough. For other, therapy and/or medication could be suggested to lead a more manageable day-to-day.
Seeing a Mental Health Professional
If you become concerned about your level of anxiety, it’s best to seek the support of a mental health professional- such as a social worker, counselor, psychologist or psychiatrist. When you see someone professionally trained in mental health care, they can help you understand the difficulties you’re experiencing.
Sure just the thought of seeking mental healthcare can create more anxiety. You may think they will make you talk about your past. Or that you won’t connect with them to feel comfortable to talk about anything. Maybe you’re afraid to cry in front of anyone let alone a stranger. Worse- you think they’ll put you in a hospital, rehab or institution.
Please know I don’t bring this up to elicit fear but to say- those who work in the mental health field are trained to work with you at your own pace. You don’t have to talk about anything you don’t want to. Ever. The idea is to create a safe space for you to feel comfortable to connect with someone who can help you understand your symptoms and learn to manage them. Therapist are legally bound to uphold privacy and confidentiality. That means they can only repeat what you’ve said to them if they are concerned about your safety or the safety of others. Anything else you tell a therapist, they cannot repeat to anyone else without your consent. You literally have to sign paperwork stating they can talk to others about what you’ve shared with them.
About Laura Geftman, LCSW
Laura Geftman, LCSW is the Founder of The Calm, Cool & Collected and a practicing therapist. Beyond all things cannabis and mental health, Laura is passionate about developing greater understanding for kindness and acceptance. In her free time, Laura can be found on her yoga mat, in a kayak or singing karaoke.