Anxiety Disorders

How many times have you felt apprehensive about an event that is coming up in the near future? Have you lost your sleep before a forthcoming examination? Do you have the experience of feeling butterflies flying in your stomach? Have you felt excessively tense at any point of time? Did you find yourself biting your nails out of worry and fear? Have you ever found yourself jumping out of your skin even with a very small noise?

If you answered YES to any of the above questions, you may consider a consultation to rule out the presence of any anxiety disorder that you may be suffering from. However, before that, it might be helpful for you to understand the difference between Stress and Anxiety.

It can often be difficult to spot the differences between stress and anxiety. Both can lead to sleepless nights, exhaustion, excessive worry, lack of focus, and irritability. Even physical symptoms – like rapid heart rate, muscle tension, and headaches – can impact both people experiencing stress and those diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. With symptoms that can appear interchangeable, it can be difficult to know when to work on deep breathing and when to seek professional help.

In short, stress is your body’s reaction to a trigger and is generally a short-term experience. Stress can be positive or negative. When stress kicks in and helps you pull off that deadline you thought was a lost cause, it’s positive. When stress results in insomnia, poor concentration, and impaired ability to do the things you normally do, it’s negative. Stress is a response to a threat in any given situation.

Anxiety, on the other hand, is a sustained mental health disorder that can be triggered by stress. Anxiety doesn’t fade into the distance once the threat is mediated. Anxiety hangs around for the long haul, and can cause significant impairment in social, occupational, and other important areas of functioning.

The six main categories of anxiety disorders are phobias, panic disorder (with or without agoraphobia), generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, acute stress disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder (American Psychiatric Association [apa], 2000). Each of these anxiety disorders is distinct in some ways, but they all share the same hallmark features, as follows:

  • Irrational and excessive fear;
  • Apprehensive and tense feelings
  • Difficulty managing daily tasks and/or distress related to these tasks.

Anxiety leads to changes in our bodies in three “systems of functioning”, namely: the way we think (cognitive), the way our body feels and works (physical), and the way we act (behavioural). How much these three systems change varies, depending on the person and the context.

  1. Cognitive: Attention shifts immediately and automatically to the potential threat. The effect on a person’s thinking can range from mild worry to extreme terror.
  2. Physical: Effects include heart palpitations or increased heart rate, shallow breathing, trembling or shaking, sweating, dizziness or light headedness, feeling “weak in the knees,” freezing, muscle tension, shortness of breath and nausea.
  3. Behavioural: People engage in certain behaviours and refrain from others as a way to protect themselves from anxiety (e.g., taking self-defence classes or avoiding certain streets after dark).

It is important to recognize that the cognitive, physical and behav- ioural response systems of anxiety often come hand-in-hand with each other. For example, if you’re preparing for an important exam, you may worry about doing your best (cognitive), feel tense and maybe even have “butterflies” (physical), and initially avoid studying and then cram at the last minute (behavioural).

Anxiety Disorders
Anxiety Disorders

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