Anxiety feels just like fear, and is accompanied by worried thoughts, troubling physical symptoms, and uncomfortable emotions. The difference between fear and anxiety is not in the subjective experience. Rather, the difference lies in the reality of the threat. Sometimes, people experience what feels like fear in situations where there is minimal or no threat. Such situations include social situations, benign things that trigger reactions to past trauma, and chronic and unproductive worrying that does not involve problem-solving. Many times, people with anxiety know that their anxious feelings are excessive and out of proportion to the situation, but are unable to shake those feelings just the same.
The feelings are very real, demand attention, can be debilitating, and can impact many facets of people's lives. Fortunately, anxiety usually responds very well to psychological treatment.
Researchers estimate that approximately 30% of people's experience of anxiety comes from their genetic "inheritance". This is promising since it implies that 70% of our anxiety is very workable and subject to control by change that we can consciously make!
Anxiety comes in many forms:
This is a persistent pattern of unproductive worrying. Sometimes, people with Generalized Anxiety worry even when things are going well. Some symptoms of Generalized Anxiety include having a difficult time controlling worry, muscle tension, fatigue, having difficulty concentrating, sleep disturbances, and irritability. These types of symptoms are present more days than they are not, and can take energy away from the more satisfying aspects of life. This problem is a confusing one that often goes misdiagnosed and untreated. People with OCD often experience shame and a reluctance to talk about the thoughts and behaviours that are repetitive and sometimes completely disregard the logical part of themselves. OCD is actually a condition that involves a malfunction whereby the brain gives "false alarms" to people that they must repeat behaviours such as checking, washing, counting, and others. Sometimes, people with OCD feel a build-up of anxiety that is relieved only by engaging in the repetitive behaviour. Other people with OCD can not shake the feeling that something bad will happen if they do not repeat the behaviour. Still other people with OCD fear doing something out of control, and thus don't trust themselves in some situations. OCD is a debilitating condition that causes much distress.
This problem is a confusing one that often goes misdiagnosed and untreated. People with OCD often experience shame and a reluctance to talk about the thoughts and behaviours that are repetitive and sometimes completely disregard the logical part of themselves. OCD is actually a condition that involves a malfunction whereby the brain gives "false alarms" to people that they must repeat behaviours such as checking, washing, counting, and others. Sometimes, people with OCD feel a build-up of anxiety that is relieved only by engaging in the repetitive behaviour. Other people with OCD can not shake the feeling that something bad will happen if they do not repeat the behaviour. Still other people with OCD fear doing something out of control, and thus don't trust themselves in some situations. OCD is a debilitating condition that causes much distress.
Panic Attacks (Panic Disorder)
A panic attack is a period of intense anxiety that often involves a very physical response: heart palpitations, shortness of breath, stomach distress, numbness or tingling, feeling faint, and other physical symptoms. Sometimes, people who have had one panic attack find themselves spending a great deal of time dreading the next one. Even if the next one never comes, worrying about having another episode can be very distressing. When people start to avoid situations that they believe may induce panic attacks (i.e. riding the bus, going to the supermarket, etc.), they may find that their activity becomes increasingly restricted. That phenomenon of avoiding particular situations for fear of having a panic attack is called agoraphobia.
Phobias and Fears
Everybody is afraid of some things, but when a fear begins to interfere with the way you live your life, it may be a clinical problem that needs attention. In this instance, the word “fear” is a misnomer. Actual FEARS protect us. It’s good to be fearful of things that are likely to harm us – that’s a healthy fear – because we’re more likely to take positive steps to protect ourselves from the things we fear.
A phobia is intense anxiety over something that, in reality, is unlikely to pose actual danger. The reason that a PHOBIA is sometimes called a FEAR is because it feels exactly the same. That is to say, ANXIETY feels identical to FEAR, but FEAR is what we feel when we’re in actual danger, and anxiety is what we feel when we understand that our reaction is much greater than the “true” danger we may be in.
Most people with phobias understand that their reactions to the phobic object or situation are excessive, but that usually doesn’t help them control the anxiety. Even thinking of the phobic object or situation can be highly anxiety-provoking. Many people with phobias take great pains to avoid the phobic object or situation, sometimes at great personal inconvenience, cost and compromised life satisfaction.
There are many different kinds of phobias, such as:
Spiders and Insects
Having a panic attack or becoming otherwise incapacitated in a public place or in a place where escape would be embarrassing or difficult
Being overly self-conscious around other people, and excessively concerned about being judged.
It’s interesting to note that most of the things on this very partial list of phobias are things for which our ancestors needed to have a healthy respect. In this way, we say that many phobias have “evolutionary significance” – people in our very distant past who were wary of heights, big hairy spiders, animals with big teeth and claws, and enclosed spaces tended to live longer. Many of the ways that we experience anxiety, including phobic anxiety, are throwbacks to another time when that anxiety was an appropriate response to our environments and helped to keep us safe. In some ways, phobic anxiety represents a reaction that has largely outlived its usefulness, and presents as too excessive. It no longer keeps us safe because it is exaggerated and only gets in our way. You may consider seeking help with your phobia if it is causing you distress, or getting in the way of living your life.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
PTSD is a collection of symptoms that sometimes occurs after a single or ongoing overwhelming traumatic experience. The effects of that experience may begin to occur immediately following the trauma, or they may be delayed. Some of the symptoms of PTSD include hypervigilance, anxiety, nightmares, the tendency to be easily startled by loud noises or sudden moves, irritability, difficulty imagining what the future might bring, and an inability to experience a range of emotions. While not everybody who has a traumatic experience develops PTSD, help is available for those who do.
Social Phobia (Social Anxiety)
This is a pattern of extreme shyness that prevents people from living their lives in a satisfying way. Often, people with social phobia are very concerned that they will not be successful in social situations, that they will be judged negatively by others, and that they will end up looking foolish and being humiliated. Social phobia sometimes also involves avoidance of social situations, or alternatively, enduring them with dread. Many people with social phobia often have concerns about blushing. While many people with social phobia have experienced it as a lifelong and debilitating pattern, most people are able to return to a more satisfying lifestyle if they receive professional assistance.