We all get anxious, but it doesn’t mean we are suffering from anxiety attacks. Worrying about work, money, family, and things that matter to us is part of life. When we are anxious, we fear in anticipation of something nefarious that is to happen, sometimes we don’t even know what exactly.
However, suffering from anxiety attacks is a lot worse. When that feeling of deep anxiety is persistent and interferes with your day-to-day life, you may be experiencing an anxiety disorder.
Don’t worry, anxiety is a mental health matter that you can deal with. Let’s demystify the topic of anxiety to get a better understanding of what it is, how to know if you have an anxiety disorder, and how to treat it.
What is anxiety?
Psychotherapists often portray anxiety as a fear without a specific object. It is an unclear yet intense feeling that something dreadful is about to happen. Even more, not knowing what’s causing this dread and nervousness can worsen the feeling of anxiety, increasing emotional and physical symptoms.
For some people, anxiety can be triggered by specific situations or issues. Furthermore, it is common for precise fears or feeling avoidance to lead to bursts of anxiety. According to studies on emotions, when we repress strong emotions like anger, it can lead to irrational fears that cause intense anxiety.
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“I’ve been helping patients dealing with acute anxiety and panic attacks for over 20 years. I’ll teach you my well-being methodology for coping with your anxiety right away. At the same time, we will explore what brings on your anxiety and how to lessen its grip on you.”
– Dr. Elefant-Yanni
Classifications of anxiety disorders
What counts as an anxiety disorder?
Anxiety disorders all share features of excessive fear, anguish, and related behavioral disturbances. There’s a distinction between fear, an emotional response to a real or perceived impending threat, and anxiety, the anticipation of an undetermined future threat.
It can become a source of concern when anxiety is disproportionate compared to the situation, with severe attacks that last a long time. These states of anxiety can be coupled with physical symptoms like increased blood pressure and nausea. Such conditions might go beyond an inoffensive anxiety episode into an anxiety disorder where it interferes with daily function.
Different kinds of anxiety disorders
The following diagnoses are the primary forms of anxiety disorders:
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
GAD is the most common type of anxiety disorder. With a GAD the feelings of anxiety or anguish are constant to the point of interfering with everyday life. It is different from occasional anxiety and worrying due to stress or tension. People living with this chronic disorder have ongoing anxiety that is difficult to assign to a source. When suffering from GAD, episodes of anxiety can be extremely long-lasting.
Short or sudden attacks of intense fear and apprehension are characteristic of a panic disorder diagnosis. People tend to feel terror and a sense of losing control, whether or not there is actual danger or trigger. These panic attacks usually go with physical symptoms such as shaking, confusion, dizziness, difficulty breathing, and nausea. They are typically short, lasting about 10 minutes, but in severe cases, they can last a few hours.
Just as with anxiety, experiencing a panic attack doesn’t mean the person has a panic disorder. To deal with panic attacks, individuals can adjust their lifestyle or behavior to avoid being confronted with specific triggers and learn to cope with situations that can lead to panic attacks.
A phobia is an acute, incessant, irrational worry about a specific object or situation that is expressed through physical symptoms like sweating, trembling, rapid heartbeat, or breathing difficulty. The sense of imminent danger is disproportionate and disconnected from reality.
Commonly, people experiencing a phobia-related disorder such as a specific phobia, agoraphobia, or a social phobia go out of their way to avoid the activities or people that can trigger their attacks. This attitude is called avoidance behavior.
Also called a simple phobia, a specific phobia is an irrational fear and anxiety caused by particular circumstances, things, or people. The person suffering from a specific phobia can understand that her anguish is out of proportion or illogical, but can’t control the anxiety she experiences because of her triggers.
We tend to associate agoraphobia with a fear of being around individuals and open spaces, but it is more complex than this. People with agoraphobia actively avoid locations or situations from which they feel it would be difficult to escape or where they could become trapped.
In some extreme forms of agoraphobia, people try to avoid all and any triggers by becoming housebound.
Social Anxiety Disorder
Someone with a social anxiety disorder, or social phobia, experiences an irrational fear of social settings where they can be negatively judged or publicly embarrassed. One with social phobia tries to avoid circumstances where they can be triggered, such as gatherings or personal contact. This can lead to social isolation.
Separation Anxiety Disorder (SAD)
Contrary to popular belief, adults too can suffer from separation anxiety disorder. People with separation anxiety disorder are scared of being separated from the ones they are attached to. There’s an irrational fear that something sinister can happen to their attachment figure.
Physical symptoms and nightmares are common with this disorder when separation is expected or happens.
A rather rare anxiety disorder, selective mutism can affect children under the age of 5. With social mutism, a child is unable to be verbal despite normal language development. This can occur in certain situations and be linked to excessive shyness, compulsive traits, clinginess, and social anxiety. Social mutism tends to suddenly disappear as the child grows and chases away his fears.
Selective mutism is considered an extreme form of social phobia and often occurs in parallel to other forms of severe anxiety.
Anxiety attack or panic attack?
Colloquially, we tend to use “anxiety attack” and “panic attack” interchangeably. Yet, these conditions are quite distinct. Basically, an anxiety attack is prompted by the anticipation of a stressful occurrence and increases gradually, whereas a panic attack is sudden and abrupt.
Both kinds of attacks can have physical symptoms such as sweating and chills, dizziness, and chest pain, but there are nuances between anxiety and panic attacks.
Distinguishing between an anxiety attack and a panic attack can be difficult because they have a lot of emotional and physical symptoms in common. It is also possible to experience both types of attacks simultaneously.
For instance, you may feel intense anxiety in expectation of negative circumstances, like a meeting with your manager or a public speaking event. Later, when the event happens, your anxiety may escalate into a panic attack.
What is an anxiety attack?
Anxiety attack isn’t a syndrome in itself, but rather a component of many mental health issues.
Generally, anxiety is caused by stress and anticipation of a negative outcome. It’s a usual emotion when we look at it through an evolutionary lens. To protect ourselves and survive, we must be ready for the worst, and that means being prepared for any type of danger. In our contemporary world, this can turn into fear for our family, losing a loved one, or not being able to pay our bills. Most of the time, we reason with ourselves and chase our fears away.
That said, when we talk of an anxiety attack, we refer to disproportionate levels of anxiety that can become paralyzing or even debilitating. This extreme anxiety can be a symptom of an anxiety disorder.
What is a panic attack?
Although similar to anxiety, a panic attack is quite different. A panic attack is defined as an abrupt surge of intense fear or intense discomfort that reaches a peak within minutes. Panic attacks constitute a type of anxiety disorder.
Whereas an anxiety attack comes gradually, a panic attack starts abruptly without any warning and with feelings of severe fear and distress. It is accompanied by physical symptoms, including an accelerated heartbeat, shortness of breath, or nausea.
Additionally, there are two categories of panic attacks, unexpected and expected. An unexpected panic attack appears out of the blue without any obvious cause. On the other hand, an expected panic attack is due to external stressors and known triggers like a phobia.
Under stress, a panic attack can occur to anyone. When panic attacks are repetitive and frequent, they can be a sign of panic disorder.
How to recognize an anxiety attack?
The ways somebody experiences anxiety can be very different from someone else. In extreme situations, individuals can experience all the symptoms simultaneously, while others can have a milder form of attack with just a couple of emotional or physical symptoms.
Normally, the symptoms do not last and dissipate as the worry of danger fades. When symptoms are persistent or frequent, it can be a sign of an anxiety disorder.
Emotional symptoms of anxiety
Typically, emotional symptoms of anxiety consist of:
- Anguish and uneasiness
- Intense fear
- Restlessness and agitation
- Difficulty sleeping
- Concentration issues
- Feelings of hopelessness or grief
Physical symptoms of anxiety
Physical symptoms of anxiety can include and are not limited to:
- Accelerated heartbeat
- Sudden diarrhea
- Excessive sweating
- Struggle to breathe
- Dry mouth and tightness in the throat
- Tightness in the chest, neck, or head
What causes anxiety attacks?
Anxiety attacks are caused by acute stress and anticipation of negative events.
Common causes of anxiety attacks include:
- Life-altering occurrences
- Uncertainty about the future
- Stressful work environment
- Material uncertainty such as money
- Relationship or family tensions
- Divorce, separation, or death
- Stress linked to parenting or caregiving
- Illness, chronic conditions, impaired physical or mental functions
- Inappropriate medication or drugs
- Experiencing trauma
- Prolonged stress or anxiety
Do I have an anxiety disorder?
If you are experiencing frequent bouts of anxiety, or feel that your anxiety is unwarranted, consult a mental health professional.
A therapist can’t diagnose an anxiety attack since it is a common expression referring to an anxiety episode rather than a scientific term.
Your physician can establish if you have:
- Anxiety symptoms
- An anxiety disorder
- Panic attacks
- A panic disorder
What are the best treatments for anxiety?
Consult your therapist for the best treatments to alleviate and cope with your form of anxiety. Keep in mind that experiencing anxiety doesn’t mean you are sick or mentally ill. Experiencing anxiety is absolutely normal.
Nonetheless, if your anxiety takes over and hinders your normal life, there are paths to help you comprehend it and cope with it.
Counseling and psychotherapy
Therapy is one of the best ways to deal with anxiety issues. It can involve:
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)
- Cognitive therapy
- Relaxation techniques such as breathing, meditation, or biofeedback
In some countries, such as the USA, prescribing antidepressants, beta-blockers, or anti-anxiety drugs is fairly common. Regardless, it is only advised in extreme cases.
All these drugs can present severe adverse effects and lead to long-term complications and dependency. Moreover, they can’t “cure” anxiety. Even while taking medication, a patient must seek other forms of treatment such as lifestyle changes and therapy.
Depending on the reason for your anxiety and how it manifests itself, making lifestyle changes can help you prevent or decrease your anxiety.
Some lifestyle changes that can help you manage your anxiety:
- Meditation practice
- Spend time in nature
- Walk or exercise daily
- Limit drugs, alcohol, and caffeine
- Eat a healthy diet and avoid processed foods
- Identify sources of stress and reduce them
- Practice positive self-talk
The following won’t replace therapy or lifestyle changes, but it can help you handle your anxiety and increase your well-being.
Use these when you feel your anxiety level increasing:
- Breathing exercises: focus on your breathing. Inhale deeply and hold for 3 seconds. Exhale deeply and hold for 3 seconds. Repeat 3 times. This technique helps clear your mind and make your present.
- Practicing mindfulness and being present: with anxiety comes fearful anticipation for a hypothetical future. Mindfulness helps you dispel irrational thoughts.
- Self-awareness: make a mental note of the symptoms you are experiencing and acknowledge that anxiety is normal and passing.
- Relaxation: from aromatherapy to guided meditation, or taking a calming shower, find a relaxation technique that works for you.
Demystifying anxiety attacks – Takeaways
Anxiety is a normal way for us to cope with our fear and uncertainties for the future. Still, not all forms of anxiety are the same. Understand what form of anxiety you are feeling and how to cope with it.
It is normal to experience mild infrequent anxiety. Use lifestyle changes and self-care remedies to help you get through your anxiety proactively.
If your anxiety has become disruptive in your day-to-day life, consult a therapist. Psychotherapy and therapy can help you get to the source of your anxiety and treat it effectively.