Anxious about Anxiety
Emotion vs. Disorder
It is perfectly normal to be apprehensive about the future. As humans, we worry about many things. We worry about upcoming assessments, about our families, about our jobs, our health… The list of worrysome circumstances is endless. Though it may not seem so, anxiety is a healthy emotion. Without anxiety, there will be nothing to motivate our daily activities. Imagine you have an upcoming musical performance. Without anxiety, you will see no reason to rehearse before you step foot onto the stage. Or if you have an upcoming interview, for instance. Why prepare for the interview if you’re not anxious about it?
The thing that differentiates healthy anxiety from an anxiety disorder is the severity and the duration of the emotion. When you’re constantly and excessively apprehensive about the future, it can lead to significant emotional distress and impairment. Once you begin feeling anxious about having anxiety, then you’re either heading toward developing an anxiety disorder or you’re already experiencing an anxiety disorder.
Theories of Anxiety
According to Sigmund Freud, anxiety is a psychic reaction to danger that involves a past childhood experience. Although this can be true, there are other contributions to the cause of anxiety. The psychological view of anxiety supports Freud in a way, stating that early experience with uncontrollably and unpredictability can lead to anxiety. This means that a child who grows up in a chaotic family or a similar circumstance is at greater risk for severe anxiety. Similarly, the social view states that stressful life events trigger an individual’s vulnerability to anxiety.
Panic Disorder is one of the several types of anxiety disorders. The majority of the world's population would experience at least one panic attack in their lifetime but not everyone will suffer with panic disorder. Panic disorder affects about 3.5% of the United States population and two thirds of those with panic disorder are female.
Individuals with panic disorder are diagnosed by their fear of having another panic attack. The fear of having a panic attack can also trigger an actual panic attack, thus creating the vicious cycle of being anxious about anxiety and panicking when thinking about having a panic attack.
What is this talk of panic attacks anyway? A panic attack is "an abrupt experience of intense fear or acute discomfort, accompanied by physical symptoms" (Barlow and Durand).
Symptoms of a Panic Attack
- Chest pain or discomfort
- Dizziness, lightheadedness or faintness
- Fear of dying
- Fear of losing control
- Fear of choking
- Feelings of detachment
- Feelings of unreality
- Nausea or upset stomach
- Numbness or tingling
- Palpitations or pounding heart
- Sensation of shortness of breath
- Sweating, chills, or hot flashes
- Trembling or shaking
Panic Attack vs. Heart Attack
If you've had a discrete period of intense fear or discomfort where four or more of the above symptoms were experienced, then that is classified as a panic attack. The symptoms of a panic attack often develop abruptly and peak within 10 minutes.
Many times, when individuals experience a panic attack for the first time, they run straight to the emergency room, believing that they're having a heart attack. As you may have noticed, the physiological symptoms of a panic attack, such as chest pain and palpitations are also symptoms of a heart attack.
With a real heart attack, pain often radiates usually to the left arm or to the jaw while chest pain during a panic usually remains in the center of the chest.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
GAD is another type of anxiety disorder associated with panic attacks. It affects about 4% of the population. GAD is characterized by the excessive and uncontrollable anxious apprehension and worry and the following symptoms (at least 3) persists for at least 6 months:
Symptoms of GAD
- Restlessness or edginess
- becoming easily tired
- difficulty concentrating or mind going blank
- muscle tension
- sleep disturbance
Brief Case Study - an individual with GAD
The anxiety associated with GAD and the physical symptoms significantly distress or impair the individual's social and occupational functioning. The anxiety just continues to pile up.
There was a case of a 20-year-old college student who felt that everything was a catastrophe. Though she had at 3.7 grade-point average, she felt she would fail every assessment. She always threatened to drop courses and was so worried she finally quit college after only a month.
The young woman went to a junior college instead but she continued to worry about school. She worried about her relationships and constantly believed that her boyfriend would lose interest in her and think that she was a fool. With every meal, she felt she would eat something that will make her ill. As a result, her eating habits became unstable. She was even worried about her religious faith.
Every now and then, this young woman had a panic attack but it was not her primary concern (which differentiates GAD from Panic Disorder). Her primary concern was what will go wrong next in her life.
Because of this young woman's constant worry, she developed chronic headaches, stomach pains and gas. Everything in her life was a downward spiral of misfortunes.
Is There a Cure?
As with other psychological conditions, there is no cure for anxiety disorders but there are treatments out there. Anti-anxiety and anti-depressant medications are often prescribed and have proven to alleviate symptoms. Another proven alleviator of PD and GAD symptoms is Cognitive Behavioral (Psycho)therapy. Chronic Behavioral Therapy uses techniques such as muscle relaxation and breathing techniques to help patients learn to deal with the symptoms of GAD and PD.
Reduce Stress to Reduce Anxiety
There are several ways to alleviate the symptoms of anxiety. Reducing stress is one way. In order to reduce stress you can:
- Multitask less and organize your priorities
- Don't hold grudges - forgive and forget
- Make a schedule to help with time management
- Schedule a "me-time" - take time for yourself
- Keep a diary
- Deep breathing
Books on Anxiety
Help Yourself so you can Help Others
For those suffering with anxiety out there, remember you're not the only one. There are many others who are experiencing or have experienced what you are experiencing right now. For those who know someone suffering with anxiety, get educated in the topic and do some research so you can properly support that person. The more the public becomes aware of anxiety disorders, the greater chance of better treatments being found and becoming avaliable to sufferers.
If you are an anxious individual, it's time to take measures to ease your anxiety and prevent developing an anxiety disorder.
Another psychological health hub that may be helpful
- An Overview of Stress and Stress Management
A general overview of the biological and psychological influences of stress. Includes advice on how to cope with and manage stress.
Barlow, David H., and Vincent Mark. Durand. Abnormal Psychology: an Integrative Approach. Australia: Cengage Wadsworth, 2009. Print.
Miller, Tara. "100 Natural Ways to Overcome Anxiety | U.S. PharmD." U.S. PharmD - U.S. Doctor of Pharmacy. Web. 19 May 2010. <http://www.uspharmd.com/blog/2008/100-natural-ways-to-overcome-anxiety/>.