Most of us have had experiences and periods of time where we have felt anxiety. The anticipation of something we are dreading or looking forward to, the unease of a new situation, or the feeling of being not-quite-safe in an unfamiliar environment. In a clinical mental health definition, an anxiety disorder is when the temporary experience of anxiety is more chronic, impacting with daily functioning.
Anxiety can take different formats. Some forms of anxiety are specific, such as specific phobias, in which a person has a fear of a particular stimulus. Some incredibly fun terms come from highly specific phobias, like hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia – a fear of long words. In fact, having to use such a term to define your fear is also a form of exposure therapy – we will get to that in a moment. A very common phobia is social phobia, which is also termed social anxiety disorder. This particular fear includes intense anxiety experience in a social situation, either from fear of being judged, evaluated, or rejected, and therefore causing the social phobia sufferer to disengage and withdraw.
Other types of anxiety are more vague to define. Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), and unspecified anxiety disorder discusses a wider, more chronic experience of worry, tenseness, and discomfort, often without any sort of trigger at all. Panic disorder is a type of anxiety that includes the experience of panic attacks – physical symptomology connected to anxiety, such as heart palpitations, sweating, shortness of breath, and the feeling that one is dying. Panic attacks can be cued or uncued, meaning that sometimes they happen completely out of nowhere.
There are two other types of anxiety disorder. One is obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), an anxiety disorder in a category all of its own. OCD is characterized by both unwanted intrusive and recurrent thoughts (known as obsessions) as well as repetitive behaviors (compulsions). A key facet of the connection between the obsessions and compulsions is a believe that the compulsions will help stop or mitigate the obsessions. Another more unique anxiety disorder is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This anxiety disorder is marked by hypervigilence, irritability, and rumination, and must have been cued by an ordeal in which ones’ life – or another’s – is in grave danger. PTSD is often associated with veterans of war, though any traumatic experience can cause PTSD, including car accidents, natural disasters, or abusive situations.
One of the most researched and validated treatments for anxiety disorders includes cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT works by helping a patient or client understand the connection between ones’ thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. When using CBT for anxiety, a therapist might challenge cognitive distortions, or thinking errors that contribute to or exacerbate anxiety. Once these thoughts are identified, they can be replaced with more adaptive or helpful thoughts. In turn, these thoughts help to reduce the anxiety experience.
From the behavioral end, exposure therapy is considered helpful for phobias and anxiety experience. By systematically desensitizing a person to the traumatic stimulus, you can help a person’s anxiety response reduce overtime to a manageable or negligible level. This particular therapeutic technique can be challenging for parents who have kids with anxiety disorders. It can feel counterproductive, to help a child through an anxiety experience rather than protecting them from the discomfort. In the long term, though, children who learn how to face their fears, challenge the irrational thoughts that come with the fears, and mitigate the behaviors that are used to work around the anxiety end up with more resilience, and a better capacity to face new fears.
For more information on how to help treat an anxiety disorder, check out our directory of experienced therapists, and see what the buzz is about!