If you’ve ever had a panic attack, you’ve likely branded yourself an “anxious” person at some point. But there is no such thing as one anxiety disease: There are several different types, and it’s possible to suffer from a few of them at the same time. This is referred to as comorbidity. The first start to beating anxiety is to educate yourself about it. What kind do you have, how does it interact with other conditions you may have.. Information is power. It’s the first step to healing.
Anxiety disorders affect some 40 million adults in the U.S., according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA). That’s as high as 18 percent of the population, making them one of the most common mental health afflictions. If you suffer from anxiety, you’re certainly not alone. Here are the different types, what they mean for your mental health, and the best ways to battle them. Every year, around 14% of all adult Australians are affected by an anxiety disorder. Women are affected more than men. (SANE Australia)
Generalized Anxiety Disorder
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) affects over 3 percent of the U.S. population. People with GAD will typically worry excessively and chronically, meaning there will always be fear in the back of their minds for months and even years. Having this chronic worrying is mentally exhausting, which often means people with the disorder will feel fatigued and drained, have difficulty concentrating, experience muscle tension, or be unable to sleep well. Fortunately, it can be treated with medication like anti-anxiety meds or antidepressants, as well as cognitive behavioural therapy.
Panic disorder refers to a condition in which sudden, debilitating attacks of fear or panic impair a person’s daily life. During a panic attack, a person will experience intense physical symptoms including hyperventilation, increased pulse, dizziness or lightheadedness, tingling limbs, chest pain, or abdominal pain. Such physical symptoms can often be scary, since they share qualities with symptoms of heart attacks or strokes, and typically exacerbate the panic attack. Fortunately, like GAD, panic disorder can be treated with medication and psychotherapy.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
OCD may be one of the most poorly understood mental disorders out there: It’s easy to stereotype people with OCD as being excessively clean or orderly. In fact, many myths about OCD can be debunked by science.
There are two pillars of OCD: obsessions, which are thoughts or images that repeat in the person’s mind, and compulsions. The person will feel out of control and find the thoughts disturbing, and experience accompanying feelings of fear or worry. These obsessions can involve fears of contamination, unwanted sexual thoughts, religious fears of offending God or morality, or being worried they will harm someone they care about.
Compulsions involve the actions and “rituals” that follow the obsessive thought. Ritualistic steps often make the person feel like they have more control over their thought by allowing them to “cancel” it out. OCD can be complicated to treat, but there are cognitive behavioural therapies that help people face their fears and overcome their obsessions and compulsions, such as Exposure and Response Prevention.
Surprisingly, phobias affect nearly 9 percent of the population, mainly women. Phobias involve the overwhelming fear of an object, organism, or situation that is objectively harmless. Phobias like the fear of open spaces, close spaces, snakes, and elevators, among others, can be damaging to a person’s daily life and relationships. Getting help can include being prescribed beta blockers, antidepressants, or sedatives as well as participating in cognitive behavioural therapy or desensitization or exposure therapy.
Social Anxiety Disorder
It’s one thing to be shy or an introvert, but in extreme cases, a person may suffer from social anxiety disorder — the fear of being judged or scrutinised in social situations. This can prevent sufferers from socialising, going to work, or even leaving their homes. Conquering social anxiety disorder might involve exposure therapy to overcome the feelings of nervous “stage fright,” as well as anti-anxiety meds.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
PTSD is often listed as a mental illness entirely on its own, but it is often linked to the anxiety umbrella and it may be one of the most serious anxiety disorders. PTSD stems from a traumatic incident or even a brain injury that damages a person’s mental health and results in severe flashbacks, depression, and anxiety. Because of the complexity of the condition, there are various types of treatments that can be individualised based on the person. Complex PTSD refers to multiple trauma related incidents such as childhood abuse.
Fear not, there are a range of therapies for anxiety that work very effectively so don’t despair if you fit into any of the above categories.
Psychological treatments for anxiety
Psychological treatments (also known as talking therapies) can help you change your thinking patterns so you’re able to keep your anxiety under control and reduce irrational worries.
There are several types of effective psychological treatments for anxiety, as well as different delivery options. Some people prefer to work one on one with a professional, while others get more out of a group environment. A growing number of online programs, or e-therapies, are also available.
Cognitive Behaviour Therapy
CBT is a structured psychological treatment which recognises that the way we think (cognition) and act (behaviour) affects the way we feel. CBT involves working with a professional (therapist) to identify thought and behaviour patterns that are either making you more likely to become anxious, or stopping you from getting better when you’re experiencing anxiety. Once you’ve recognised any unhelpful patterns that are contributing to your anxiety, you can make changes to replace these with new ones that reduce anxiety and improve your coping skills.
For example, you might find yourself stuck in catastrophising thinking patterns. This means thinking the worst, believing something is far worse than it actually is, or anticipating things will go wrong. CBT helps by teaching you to think that more realistically and focus on problem-solving. If you actively avoid situations or things that cause anxiety, CBT can help you face your fears and approach these situations more rationally.
- Professionals may use a range of techniques in CBT. Examples include:
- encouraging you to recognise the difference between productive and unproductive worries
- teaching you how to let go of worries and solve problems.
- teaching relaxation and breathing techniques, particularly muscle relaxation, to control anxiety and the physical symptoms of tension.
CBT can be delivered one-on-one with a professional, in groups, or online (see e-therapies, below). CBT is often combined with behaviour therapy.
While behaviour therapy is a major component of cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), unlike CBT it doesn’t attempt to change beliefs and attitudes. Instead it focuses on encouraging activities that are rewarding, pleasant or give a sense of satisfaction, in an effort to reverse the patterns of avoidance and worry that make anxiety worse.
Avoiding frightening situations can mean you don’t get a chance to face your fear and prove to yourself you can cope with it, in turn causing your anxiety to persist. Behaviour therapy for anxiety relies mainly on a treatment called ‘graded exposure’. There are a number of different approaches to exposure therapy, but they’re all based on exposing you to the specific things that make you anxious. This experience helps you cope with fearful situations rather than avoiding or escaping them, as well as putting your worry about the situation into perspective.
E-therapies, also known as online therapies or computer-aided psychological therapy, can be just as effective as face-to-face services for people with mild to moderate anxiety. Most e-therapies follow the same principles as CBT or behaviour therapy, and the structured nature of these treatments means they’re well suited to being delivered online.
Most e-therapies teach you to identify and change patterns of thinking and behaviour that might be preventing you from overcoming your anxiety. You work through the program by yourself, and although e-therapies can be used with or without help from a professional, most involve some form of support from a therapist. This can be via telephone, email, text, or instant messaging, and helps you to successfully apply what you’re learning to your life.
Online programs have several advantages, including:
- easy to access
- can be done from home
- can be of particular benefit for people in rural and remote areas
- can be provided in many cases without having to visit a doctor.
If you’d like to explore what’s on offer and what might work for you, the Australian Government’s mindhealthconnect website has a library of online programs.