Anxiety Disorders and How to Cope With Them
Anxiety can be experienced as a normal temporary response to something we may be worried about like an important test we are about to take or a presentation or performance we are about to give. It can also occur when we are concerned about things we have no control over like a relative’s poor health, really bad weather or a downturn in the financial markets.
In these cases anxiety generally feels like tension, tightness or fearfulness. It has a specific life span in that the symptoms of anxiety we feel tend not to last indefinitely but typically abate or dissipate as time goes on and the problems become resolved or of less concern.
Apart from the normal anxiety we are all vulnerable to feeling there are other types of anxiety that cause far more powerful and long lasting symptoms. These types of anxiety are known as Anxiety Disorders and in this blog post I will provide a description of the most common of these and what you can do treat it.
Panic disorder is the experience of having extreme panic or intensely anxious feelings which suddenly overcome the victim. Symptoms like very rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, feelings of doom, intense sweating, and stiffness in the chest which can feel like a heart attack, extreme fear that things are completely out of control and that you might even be going crazy.
When someone has Panic Disorder they fear that they might have another panic attack at any time. In other words it feels like it is out of their control and they begin to become so fearful that will avoid any person, place or thing that might cause them discomfort.
The fear can be so intense that sometimes even just the thought of doing something or going somewhere that might cause discomfort gives rise to an increase in their anxiety. It is a terrible condition but one that can be treated very effectively.
Learning about how the fight or flight mechanism in the brain works and how to control it through specific breathing and cognitive behavioral techniques, often begins to help the person to get some relief right away.
Phobias are typically defined as a fear of something specific, like snakes, driving or car travel in general, heights, air travel or enclosed spaces (claustrophobia). Often this fear is caused by an untoward event involving the very thing the person is afraid of.
For example someone who has had a bad flight experience where their aircraft may have had a great amount of turbulence causing them to become extremely anxious and fearful may become phobic about flying again. Likewise someone who has had an auto accident which frightened them may be inclined to become more fearful about traveling by car.
Once a person lets a phobia take hold and begin to control them, it can get progressively more difficult for them to overcome it. The key to overcoming a phobia is to work through the fear you have even it takes finding someone to help you. There are very effective strategies for coping with and extinguishing phobias of this type.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
People with Generalized Anxiety Disorder typically experience an ongoing sense of tension, worry, edginess, sleeplessness and irritability. They are almost always on edge and find very few if any moments of relief throughout the day.
If you can imagine a constant steady feeling of nervousness, uneasiness or restlessness coursing through your system every day you can then have an idea of how many people with GAD experience their everyday lives.
The treatment for Generalized Anxiety Disorder is usually a combination of medication and psychotherapy often using both cognitive and behavioral strategies (CBT).
Anti-anxiety and anti-depressant medications are often effective but the person also needs to work on the psychological and behavioral component of this disorder so that they approach the treatment as comprehensively as possible. This type of disorder often runs in families.
Social Anxiety Disorder (Social Phobia)
This type of anxiety is caused by a person feeling he is constantly being unfavorably viewed or judged by others. There is a much heightened sense of perception that people are watching or noticing him and his every move is exposed to perusal.
He can feel unnecessarily embarrassed and humiliated because he thinks others are intensely watching him. He can have similar symptoms like the ones described for Panic Disorder as he becomes worried and fearful of these judgments. This point of view obviously is highly irrational and typically does not stand up to logical inquiry.
However, because he is so powerfully driven by these thoughts and feelings he is unable to dismiss them even though he may know that they are irrational.
Victims of Social Anxiety Disorder typically have difficulty making friends, especially new ones, and as a result, may tend to isolate themselves from others.
Treatment should be comprehensive and might likely include medication. Treatments using both cognitive and behavioral strategies (CBT) along with medication have been shown to be effective.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
The person with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder typically has powerful and intrusive obsessive thoughts as well as compulsive behaviors. These thoughts will often compel him to perform ritualized acts (such as washing his hands repeatedly or counting to a certain number) in an attempt to soothe his anxious feelings.
Both the thoughts and the behaviors feel uncontrollable and in extreme cases, can cause a person to literally be trapped in an endless loop of repetition.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder has been highlighted in films such as “As Good As It Gets” with Jack Nicholson playing the role of a person with OCD and “The Aviator” with Leonardo DiCaprio playing the role of Howard Hughes (the eccentric billionaire entrepreneur) who suffered with an extreme case of OCD.
In the first film, Jack Nicholson’s character wants to get better and chooses to take medication which begins to help him overcome the illness. Unfortunately, in the second film, Howard Hughes’ illness may have ultimately led to his death.
OCD can often be treated effectively with a comprehensive treatment that may include medication, exposure therapy (particularly Exposure Response Prevention therapy) and ongoing counseling specific to OCD.
It is important to understand that typical psychotherapy or supportive counseling is likely not to be a good choice for treating OCD. You need to work with a specialist or someone with an understanding and appropriate training in this form of treatment.
About the Author
Dr. Stan Hyman is a licensed psychotherapist and life coach in private practice in Miami, Florida. He specializes in treating Anxiety Disorders (including Panic Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder, GAD and OCD) stress and depression.