We all feel anxious from time to time, especially when we’re faced with stressful situations like tight work deadlines or important social commitments. This kind of mild anxiety can even be helpful, sharpening our focus and helping us succeed.
However, people who experience intense bouts of fear and enduring anxiety may be dealing with an anxiety disorder. The frequency and severity of this anxiety can be overwhelming, affecting daily functioning. The good news is that the majority of people with anxiety disorders can experience significant improvement with effective psychological treatment.
Key Types of Anxiety Disorders
Different types of anxiety disorders each come with their own unique features.
- Individuals with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) have recurring fears or worries, such as concerns about health or finances. They often feel as though something bad is about to happen, even if there is no apparent reason for these intense feelings of anxiety. These fears and worries are very real to the individual and often distract them from daily tasks.
- Panic Disorder involves sudden, intense, and unprovoked feelings of terror and dread. People who suffer from this disorder generally develop strong fears about when and where their next panic attack will occur, often limiting their activities as a result of this fear.
- Related disorders include specific phobias, which are intense fears concerning certain objects or situations. For example, specific phobias might involve things like encountering certain animals or flying in an airplane. Social phobias, on the other hand, involve fears of social settings or being in public spaces.
Understanding Anxiety Disorders
Anxiety disorders, like Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), are marked by persistent, uncontrollable, and unwelcome emotions or thoughts (obsessions), alongside routines or rituals (compulsions) that individuals engage in to try to prevent or relieve these thoughts. Common compulsions include repeated hand-washing or excessive cleanliness due to fear of germs, or repeatedly checking tasks for possible mistakes (e.g., ensuring that the car is locked). Someone who has suffered severe physical or emotional trauma—such as from a natural disaster, serious accident, or crime—might develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In this disorder, thoughts, feelings, and behavioral patterns are severely affected by memories of the event, sometimes months or even years after the traumatic experience.
Symptoms like excessive fear, unexplained sweating, difficulty in breathing, rapid heartbeat, insomnia, nausea, shaking, and dizziness are common in anxiety disorders. Although an anxiety disorder can manifest at any age, onset is frequently observed in adolescence or early adulthood.
Why Seeking Therapy is Crucial
If left untreated, anxiety disorders can have serious repercussions. For instance, some people who suffer from recurring panic attacks avoid any situation they fear could trigger an attack. Such avoidant behavior can lead to multiple issues, ranging from simple clashes with work or family obligations to the complete avoidance of everyday activities, rendering the individual increasingly dysfunctional in handling everyday responsibilities. In extreme cases, this could lead to total social isolation.
Will Psychotherapy Help Me? And How Much?
Absolutely. Most cases of anxiety disorders can be treated with significant success. Research indicates that a form of psychotherapy known as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is particularly effective in treating anxiety disorders. Psychologists use CBT—provided they are trained and certified in it—to help people identify and then manage the real factors contributing to their anxiety. Behavioral therapy involves using techniques to reduce or eliminate unwanted behavior linked to these disorders. For instance, one approach teaches patients deep relaxation and breathing techniques to neutralize the hyperactivation of bodily functions (like rapid, shallow breathing) that accompany some anxiety disorders.
Through cognitive psychotherapy, patients learn to understand how their thoughts contribute to the symptoms of their anxiety disorders, and how they can change these thought patterns to reduce the severity and frequency of their reactions.
The Most Important Factor of All
Increased cognitive awareness in patients, combined with behavioral techniques, essentially educates the individual on the processes leading to heightened anxiety. The final result is that, within the controlled and safe environment of sessions with a psychologist, the patient becomes their own “psychologist.” They become fully capable of dealing with any future difficulties they may encounter.