Anxiety Disorder Definitions
Anxiety Disorders? Panic Attacks? Social Anxiety?
What do we mean when we talk about problems with "anxiety"?
Technically, we’re referring to the "anxiety disorders" that are spelled out in the DSM-IV, a psychiatric diagnostic reference book. Many millions of people suffer from anxiety problems, and until recently, little research has been done about how to treat these conditions successfully.
Today, however, research on anxiety disorders is abundant, and we are able to significantly help the vast majority of people who come in for therapy.
So, what are these anxiety disorders? We will list them and give a brief description of the problem. More complete information is available on all anxiety disorders in other articles on The Anxiety Network.
Unexpected panic attacks and the fear of having additional attacks characterize this problem. Many times the person does not know why they are having a panic attack. Sometimes it seems to come from "out of the blue". A panic attack is usually accompanied by shortness of breath, dizziness or faintness, increased heart rate, trembling and shaking, hot or cold flashes, and a sense of detachment or dissassociation. Other common symptoms include fear of dying or "going crazy", and the fear of losing control.
Panic Disorder with Agoraphobia
Agoraphobia is the fear of having panic attacks in public places (usually because they have happened there before) and then the avoidance of these places that are associated with panic attacks. It is anxiety-causing not to know when your next panic attack might occur. As the panic attacks occur more frequently and in different locations, the person who is untreated begins to fear going anywhere "unsafe" or outside of their security zone; that is anywhere they might have a panic attack. Thus, it is common for the person with agoraphobia to avoid travel and stay close to home.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder
Excessive worries about more than one circumstance characterize this anxiety problem. People with GAD are "bothered" or "worried" most of the time. Many times the worries are unrealistic, such as "What if my son goes to the baseball game today and gets in an accident?" or "What if I lose my job and I become homeless?" All of us think about things like this, but people with GAD fixate on them and can’t get them out of their mind. Generalized anxiety has been termed free-floating because it can come and go at will, without apparent reason. Physical symptoms of GAD include (but are not limited to) bodily tenseness, lump in the throat, trouble falling asleep, dry throat, and difficulty in concentrating. It is very hard for the person with generalized anxiety to just be still and relax.
It is also possible that people with current generalized anxiety symptoms have experienced panic attacks in the past, become agoraphobic, and begin to exhibit symptoms typical of generalized anxiety disorder. Unfortunately, without treatment, they continue to remain restricted in their lives and fear or dislike going too far away from home.
Social Anxiety Disorder/Social Phobia
Social anxiety disorder or social phobia is the constant fear of being criticized or evaluated by other people. People with social phobia are nervous, anxious, and afraid about many social situations. Simply attending a business meeting or going to a company party can be highly nerve-wracking and intimidating. Although people with social anxiety want very much to be social and fit in with everyone else, their anxiety about not performing well in public is strong and tends to cripple their best efforts. They freeze up when they meet new people, especially those who are authority figures. They are particularly afraid that other people will notice that they are anxious -- and this fear permits the anxiety to grow and turn into a vicious cycle. People with social anxiety tend to avoid social situations as a result of the painfulness involved. Most socially-anxious people can remember being called "shy" as a child and can elicit experiences from their past that correlate with the social anxiety they now feel. Social anxiety tends to develop early and, without adequate treatment, is a chronic, unremitting, torturous condition. Today, however, the prognosis is good for overcoming social anxiety disorder altogether.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Someone who has been through a traumatic life experience may suffer future anxiety and panic over it. Severe wartime experiences, for example, not only elicit anxiety and stress, they may induce flashbacks and panic attacks. Other post-traumatic conditions include rape or other sexual abuse, emotional abuse, and living through negative natural events, such as a devastating earthquake or hurricane. Whereas in the past, drugs were used as the only line of defense, now we know that specific, targeted cognitive-behavioral therapy works for post-traumatic stress disorder. People with PTSD are many times resistant to therapy, which is the bad news. The good news is that by participating in therapy, and pursuing an active, structured program, PTSD can be overcome.