What is Anxiety?

What is Anxiety?

Broadly speaking anxiety is an emotion that would be considered a normal response to stressful situations. It is our body’s physical response to a threat and can include an increase in our breathing, a sense of our heart beating faster and maybe a burst of energy. Most people feel anxious at some point and a certain amount of anxiety can be helpful, it is our body’s way of keeping us safe. 

If we were bush walking, for example, and saw a snake out of the corner of our eye we might experience a burst of energy which would keep us out of harm’s way. Anxiety can also be a motivator, for example when sitting an exam or during a job interview.

However, experiencing excessive, prolonged anxiety or anxiety that isn’t related to a specific or obvious challenge is a completely different thing. This is when anxiety might be affecting our day to day and quality of life.

What is an Anxiety Disorder?

An anxiety disorder is when anxiety affects a person’s life and functioning, impacting or preventing someone’s social experiences, work or school and personal relationships. We might experience an anxiety or fear response when there is not an actual threat to our safety. Our brain does not recognise a difference between an actual threat or perceived threat or danger.

Are there different types of Anxiety Disorder?

There are quite a few different anxiety disorders and some can include specific phobias.

Some common types include:

  • Separation anxiety disorder: A childhood condition that includes anxiety and fear about being apart from loved ones or away from home
  • Illness anxiety disorder: anxiety regarding our health
  • Generalised anxiety disorder: this is where we might experience excessive worry about anything and everything, including worrying about worrying.
  • Social anxiety disorder: this is when anxiety is present or exacerbated when in social situations. It often includes a fear of doing something wrong and being judged badly by others.
  • Panic disorder: repeated panic attacks including worry about future panic attacks.
  • Agoraphobia: anxiety about having a panic attack in certain situations and not being able to escape or to get help.
  • Obsessive compulsive disorder: anxious thoughts that lead to obsessive behaviour and compulsions to do certain things.
  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: anxiety and fear following a traumatic experience.
  • Specific phobias: intense fear of objects or situations (e.g. spiders – arachnophobia, or heights – acrophobia).

What are the symptoms of anxiety?

Symptoms of anxiety can vary for different people and your experience can be unique to you. However there are usually some similarities and these can include:

  • rapid breathing
  • racing heart or tightening of the chest
  • feeling tense, restless, ‘on edge’ or wound up
  • sweating
  • shaking
  • hot and cold flushes
  • feeling weak or tired
  • obsessive thinking excessive fear and worrying
  • having difficulty thinking about anything other than what’s worrying you
  • imagining the worst-case scenario
  • having a sense of impending panic, doom or danger
  • having trouble sleeping
  • stomach or digestion issues
  • avoiding situations that make you feel anxious (e.g. meeting new people, taking an elevator or going to class).

What causes anxiety disorders?

It seems that researchers are not sure of the exact cause of anxiety disorders. However, it’s understood that a combination of factors play a role. These include genetics, personality, social learning and environmental factors, as well as brain chemistry.

What is the treatment for anxiety disorders?

A range of treatments are available to support recovery from an anxiety disorder. These include your General Practitioner, often the best place to start to ensure a thorough physical examination to exclude any organic causes. Depending on your symptoms and their intensity medication may also be beneficial. Therapy with a psychologist you trust is another important treatment option. During therapy you can learn strategies to manage your anxiety, address symptoms and ensure that you can do the things that are important to you.

Written By:
Cheryl Gale,
Psychologist,
Proactive Health & Movement

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