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Understanding the different types of anxiety, and what’s behind them

November 27, 2019

Most of us experience anxiety at one time or another. It can be very useful; boosting our performance when we have a challenge at work, for example, or stopping us from doing something dangerous. But if our anxiety peaks too high, or it doesn’t switch off, it can become a problem – impairing our ability to function and leading us to avoid situations that might trigger anxious feelings.

By understanding the different types of anxiety people can have, and what the underlying cause might be, we can manage our symptoms better and decide how best to treat them.

Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) is very common. People with GAD worry constantly, usually about lots of things, and fret about what might be around the corner. We tend to have many ‘what ifs’ playing on our mind.

People with health anxiety become overly concerned about physical symptoms and what they mean – does this shaking mean I am developing MS? Is this lump cancer? This drives us to seek constant reassurance from our GP and the internet, but the reassurance doesn’t last very long.

Social anxiety is much more than shyness; it’s a debilitating fear that others will judge what we do and say, or how we look. This can impact our ability to interact with others, and often leads to avoidance of social situations.

Panic disorder is when we experience panic attacks that often feel like they come out of the blue and we start to fear what is happening to us. For example, we might think “my heart is racing, I am having a heart attack”.

Panic attacks are when we experience extreme symptoms of anxiety in the body. These typically include a racing heart, breathing faster, shaking hands, wobbly legs, and feeling dizzy or lightheaded.

People who have obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) try to deal with anxious and intrusive thoughts through repetitive behaviour. For example, someone who worries about getting sick might wash their hands numerous times a day. The aim is often to try and stop bad things from happening – but the behaviour only feeds the anxiety.

Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) happens as the result of a specific trauma that someone has experienced. This often leads to hypervigilance, which makes us feel anxious or angry, and avoidance of potentially triggering situations.

Phobias are a form of anxiety where we avoid specific objects or situations that we are excessively fearful of for example, spiders, heights, driving, flying and even clowns are all common.

Anxiety can be triggered by past experiences, for instance if we’ve been through abuse or a trauma. This is often the case with health anxiety as well as PTSD.

Often, anxiety develops alongside other mental health issues, in particular depression.

Situational stresses can be a root cause, such as problems at home, at work, or in our relationships. Anxiety is also something we can learn from our environment – for example if we grew up with a parent who was always worried that we’d hurt ourselves.

Lifestyle is another key factor. Alcohol, recreational drugs and other substances are used as a way to ease anxiety, but when the effect wears off many people feel worse.

For some people, the cause seems to be physical or biological – down to a genetic predisposition which means they’re ‘hard-wired’ to be anxious.

The most successful way to treat every type of anxiety is to tackle the behaviour, not just the thoughts. This might be through exposing someone to what triggers their anxiety, or asking them to stop doing something – such as checking the front door is locked ten times. When they see that nothing bad happens as a result of changing their behaviour, they will begin to think differently and will feel less anxious.

Anxiety responds very well to cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which provides strategies and techniques for managing it – and many people get better after their course. Find out more about how CBT can be used to treat anxiety.

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