In the first half of the 20th century, when the terminology was influenced by Freud, anxiety-driven disorders might have been called hysteria or neurosis. The broad term anxiety disorders refers to a set of psychological disorders that involve distressing and persistent anxiety that doesn’t go away and can even get worse over time.
Symptoms of Anxiety
We all feel anxious at times; that’s totally normal and is a clear example of people showing some symptoms, without meeting the diagnosis for a disorder. But people with an anxiety disorder experience excessive and persistent feelings of nervousness, panic, worry, and fear, which interfere with their overall quality of life.
They may also show physical manifestations of intense anxiety, such as difficulty sleeping, nausea, dizziness, rapid or irregular heartbeat, muscle tightness, dry mouth, sweaty or cold hands, and fighting.
These symptoms are basically the body’s way of activating the resources necessary to respond to a threat—the so-called “fight-or-flight” response—even if actual fighting or fleeing from the stress isn’t possible. Estimates are that about 18% of American adults suffer from at least one anxiety disorder.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder
Anxiety disorders can take a number of forms, which vary in terms of the specific focus and root cause of the anxiety.
People with generalized anxiety disorder have unfocused, out-of-control, negative feelings. They are constantly tense and jittery, worry excessively about anything and everything, and experience symptoms of physiological arousal (racing heart, clammy hands, nervous stomach, sleeplessness).
The anxiety is “free-flowing”, meaning that they can’t identify the source of their anxiety. It may even manifest itself as a “panic attack,” in which the person experiences intense terror and even dread, which may include feelings of chest pain, choking, and other frightening symptoms.
And because people with generalized anxiety disorder don’t understand where their anxiety is coming from—they have no clear sense of the cause—that can be terrifying. They don’t know how to avoid the anxiety or when that feeling will come back. So, they basically live with an ongoing sense of intense anxiety, which can be very disruptive to functioning in daily life.
Anxiety-induced Panic Attacks
Another type of anxiety disorder, panic disorder, also involves intense and free-flowing anxiety. But in this case, the anxiety isn’t constant, but rather is characterized by panic attacks that often seem to strike out of the blue, with no clear cause.
Because these attacks have no obvious trigger, people with panic disorder often become preoccupied with a fear of having another panic attack. They may start to avoid places or situations in which they’ve had an attack in the past or fear they could have one in the future. This avoidance of particular environments can lead to significant disruptions in daily life if, for example, they refuse to go into a grocery store, attend class, or drive a car.
This article comes directly from content in the video series Introduction to Psychology. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Phobia Stemming from Anxiety
Panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder both involve diffuse types of anxiety: the person can’t pinpoint what’s causing their anxiety. But many other types of anxiety disorders are rooted in very specific fears; they are not at all diffuse. The impact of each of these disorders varies considerably depending on the nature of the specific fear.
For example, people with social anxiety disorder have an irrational fear of being watched or judged by others, which typically starts in childhood or adolescence. Not surprisingly, this is a pretty disruptive disorder. This fear makes it very difficult for them to function in most situations, including at work, school, and in social settings.
The most common type of anxiety disorder is a specific phobia, an irrational fear that disrupts behavior and focuses anxiety on some specific object, activity, or situation. An estimated 10% of adults in the United States have some type of phobia.
Types of Phobia
Phobias are grouped into five distinct categories.
- First, there’s a fear of natural events, such as thunder, lightning, or tornadoes
- Second, there’s fear of general medical things, like going to the dentist, having a shot, or undergoing a particular procedure
- Third is fear of animals, most commonly dogs, snakes, or spiders
- Fourth, there’s fear of some specific situation, such as small spaces, driving, or heights
- And, finally, there’s an “other” category, which includes things like loud sounds, falling, and costumed characters such as clowns
When people are confronted by a specific phobic object or situation, they experience extreme reactions—nausea, trembling, rapid heart rate, and even fear of dying.
Two of the most common social phobias are fear of public speaking and fear of eating in public.
The good thing about many phobias is that they can often be avoided. Someone who is phobic about heights can avoid going to the Grand Canyon or the observation deck of a skyscraper. Someone who is phobic about snakes can avoid hiking or visiting the reptile house while visiting a zoo.
But other phobias can be virtually impossible to avoid. It’s pretty hard to avoid seeing dogs. It can be pretty hard to completely avoid seeing the dentist, using an elevator, or flying.
One of the most debilitating phobias is agoraphobia, meaning the fear of public places. This fear is often rooted in someone’s concern that they will experience a panic attack in this type of setting and be unable to escape.
They, therefore, avoid being in any situation in which escape would be impossible, such as traveling by plane or riding in an elevator. This concern about being in a situation that triggers such an attack can be so extreme that the person may refuse to ever leave their house. So in some cases, an extreme of reaction triggered by a phobia can lead to panic attacks, too.
Common Questions about Anxiety
The broad term anxiety disorders refer to a set of psychological disorders that involve distressing and persistent anxiety that doesn’t go away and can even get worse over time.
People with an anxiety disorder experience excessive and persistent feelings of nervousness, panic, worry, and fear, which interfere with their overall quality of life. They may also show physical manifestations of intense anxiety, such as difficulty sleeping, nausea, dizziness, rapid or irregular heartbeat, muscle tightness, dry mouth, sweaty or cold hands, and fighting.
Phobias can be broadly divided into 5 categories: fear of natural events, fear of general medical things, fear of animals, fear of some specific situations, and fear of the ‘other’ category that might include costumed characters, loud noises, etc.