The many faces of anxiety: Anxiety types & symptoms, explained

GAD, PTSD, PD and other letters that make up anxiety.

Awareness

Almost everyone has experienced it. You climb into bed, turn off the lights, and suddenly your brain is running through your day at marathon speed. Did I turn in that report at work? Did I lock the front door? What about those bills due at the end of the week - how am I going to pay those? And that presentation I have to do tomorrow - am I prepared? Remember the last time I embarrassed myself?

It happens to the best of us. Anxiety is a normal, natural response to life stressors. It’s a state of heightened alertness that helps you become more aware of your surroundings and helps you prepare for possible dangers - whether that’s physical safety, like being alone in a dark parking lot, or emotional safety, like preparing yourself for a test or presentation. But when anxiety becomes so intense that it causes problems at work, school, or in your relationships, or if it lasts even after the stressful event or situation is resolved, these might be indicators of a deeper problem.

Anxiety - What exactly is it?

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines anxiety as “an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes like increased blood pressure.” Yep - anxiety isn’t “just in your head.” Affecting over 40 million people in the US alone, anxiety disorders are the most common mental health diagnoses. Anxiety frequently co-occurs with other mental health conditions such as depression and ADHD. The National Institute of Mental Health (NAMI) outlines several different types of anxiety disorders; here are some of the most common.

Types of Anxiety

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

Generalized Anxiety Disorder is characterized by “excessive” worry about everyday events or activities. It’s normal to worry to a certain degree about stressors like work, relationships, and any number of other life situations. “Excessive” usually means that the worry you’re experiencing is so severe that it’s impacting functioning in one or more areas of your life, and continues for more than six months regardless of the circumstances. For example, you might constantly be worrying about your finances, even when your bills are all paid, or worry excessively about your grades in school even if you’ve always been an A student.

Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD)

Social Anxiety Disorder, also sometimes called Social Phobia, is characterized by excessive worry or concern about social events or situations. This isn’t just shyness or discomfort. Again, diagnosis requires that the Social Anxiety causes problems in one or more areas of life. The Social Anxiety sufferer usually worries so much about social situations that they avoid them altogether, leave early, or make excuses not to go. This may impact their ability to work, go to school, or maintain relationships with friends, family, or romantic partners. Specifically, they are typically worried about being negatively judged or rejected by others in social situations.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is one frequently showcased on TV. But the symptoms are not nearly as amusing to the real-life OCD sufferer. The difference between OCD and Generalized Anxiety Disorder is that OCD requires two parts: obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are repeated, intrusive thoughts and fears, images, or urges. Usually they are about potential harm coming to themselves or loved ones. Compulsions are behaviors that the sufferer feels they must perform in order to relieve the anxiety. This can be both physical tasks like handwashing, or mental tasks, like checking or counting. The obsessions and compulsions can take up hours and hours of the day, severely impacting ability to function in everyday life roles.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Many people who experience distressing events will have flashbacks, nightmares, or intrusive memories about the event. However, the person with PTSD continue to be anxious and/or depressed about the event for months to years afterward. PTSD frequently goes hand in hand with Panic Disorder, but not always. And, it’s possible to develop PTSD not only from experiencing a trauma first-hand, but also from witnessing, or even hearing about it.

Panic Disorder (PD)

Panic Disorder is a little different than other anxiety disorders, in that often the panic attacks seem to come “out of the blue.” They occur suddenly, without much if any warning, and often can be detrimental to a person’s life; since they’re nearly impossible to predict, it can impact ability to work, go to school, and any number of other life tasks. It can also be even more of a financial strain than other forms of anxiety. Often people who experience panic attacks experience a fear that they might be dying, which can seem very real, so they go to the emergency room. The cost of ER trips can really add up. Often, because the experience of having a panic attack is so distressing, the sufferer has a great deal of fear about having another one. Unfortunately this only makes it more likely that a panic attack will occur.

Symptoms

Symptoms of anxiety disorders are frequently very similar, and many overlap. It’s also common for a person to be diagnosed with more than one type of anxiety disorder. Some of the most common symptoms of anxiety disorders include:

  • Irritability
  • Muscle tension
  • Memory problems
  • Sleep problems
  • Easily fatigued
  • Feeling “keyed up” or “on edge”
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Feeling “out of control,” like you’re “going crazy,” or a sense of “impending doom”
  • Intense fear of situations, environments, or objects that lead to avoidance
  • Checking things, or repeating things, over and over

Again, it’s important to keep in mind that having one or more of these symptoms doesn’t mean you have an anxiety disorder - most of these symptoms appear in other physical and mental health conditions, and are even normal reactions to a number of life events and situations. But if the symptoms become so intense you can’t stand it, or if they begin to cause problems in your life, give your doctor a call. They can help you determine whether anxiety, ADHD, depression, or some other diagnosis is most appropriate, and refer you to a specialist if needed.

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