Last updated: 12/22/2022
Most of us get anxious sometimes, maybe before a big exam or a job interview. Anxiety disorders differ, however, both from stress and from fleeting moments of anxiousness or worry, in that they have a significant and ongoing adverse impact on day-to-day life. Anxiety disorders involve intense and excessive worrying along with other debilitating symptoms. People with these disorders may feel anxious almost all of the time to a degree that it can impair their entire life. While normal stress is transient, anxiety disorders are ongoing, lasting for weeks or months.
Anxiety disorders are treatable. In fact, they are among the most treatable mental health disorders.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is characterized by uncontrollable worry, a constant sense of dread or anticipation of disaster. Persistent feelings of restlessness, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, shortness of breath, sleep disturbances and muscle tension are symptoms of GAD. Excessive worry about health, school, relationships or one’s future is common but often the source of worry is hard to identify. This uncontrollable worry lasts at least six months and can lead to impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning. Sometimes the worry can be so severe that it can lead to a panic attack.
Panic Disorder is characterized by recurrent, unexpected intense episodes of fear and anxiety. During a panic attack, people experience physical symptoms such as shortness of breath, sweating, dizziness, racing heart and shakiness. A panic attack may also cause feeling of loss of control or a fear of going crazy or of dying. These symptoms occur when the body's "flight or fight" response suddenly becomes activated for no reason. The attack may last just a few minutes or, sometimes, longer.
The good news is that panic attacks always end! People who suffer from a panic disorder are often plagued by excessive worry in anticipation of the possibility of another attack. This worry may lead to changes in lifestyle meant to avoid situations in which prior panic attacks have occurred.
A phobia is a strong, irrational fear of a specific object or situation that, in reality, poses little or no real threat. This anxiety may lead people to unnecessarily limit their lifestyle in order to avoid the possibility of encountering what is feared. When people who suffer from a phobia cannot avoid a feared object or situation, they may experience rapid heartbeat, sweating, panic and a strong desire to get away.
Phobias generally begin in childhood. Common phobias are claustrophobia (fear of enclosed spaces), acrophobia (fear of heights), agoraphobia (fear of public places), flying, spiders or other insects, thunderstorms.
Many people experience some degree of nervousness in social situations. However, Social Phobia involves an intense, irrational fear of being embarrassed or judged negatively by others. Individuals suffering from this type of phobia may severely limit their activities and avoid almost all social situations including casual social interaction, eating in public, or speaking with an authority figure. They often fear that others will notice their physical signs of anxiety such as sweating, shaking or blushing.
As with other types of phobias, people with Social Phobia generally recognize that their fear is irrational. Social Phobia can be overcome by taking small steps forward. One step is joining a social support group like the Social Anxiety Management Group offered at CPS.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is characterized by persistent thoughts, images or impulses that are experienced as distressing and which lead to severe anxiety. Obsessions are intrusive thoughts, images, or ideas that won't go away, are unwanted, and are extremely worrying. The compulsions of OCD are characterized by the pressing need to do something to prevent or get rid of the anxiety associated with the obsessive thoughts. This need may take the form of rituals such as constant hand-washing.
People who struggle with these thoughts or rituals may even know that they are irrational. While many people have occasional obsessive thoughts or compulsive behaviors, people with OCD often spend much of their day consumed with these symptoms, to the degree that the disorder greatly interferes with their daily life
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) may occur in the aftermath of a traumatic event such as a serious accident, sexual or physical assault, or war. Individuals with PTSD often experience intense fear or stress even after the actual threat is past. They may also have intense feelings of helplessness, flashbacks or intrusive thoughts of the event, trouble sleeping or nightmares, guilt, increased arousal or a need to avoid situations associated with the trauma. These symptoms can appear weeks, months or even years after the event. CPS offers several support groups that may be helpful for individuals dealing with these issues.
Talk with a professional experienced in helping individuals struggling with forms of anxiety. Support may include individual or group counseling, among other strategies.
The Counseling and Psychological Services team in Columbia Health is comprised of psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers available to provide support through scheduled appointments, drop-in locations, or group support.