Anxiety disorders describe a group of related mental illnesses. A very common myth is that anxiety disorders are the same thing as problems with stress. Anxiety and stress problems can have a lot in common. The difference is that in an anxiety disorder, the symptoms are extreme and don’t go away once the stress is over. There are several different types of anxiety disorders:
- Generalized anxiety disorder—is when someone has unusually high levels of anxiety and worry about aspects of daily life like health and well-being, finances, family or work.
- Panic disorder—is when a person has panic attacks and is afraid of having more panic attacks. A panic attack is a sudden, unexpected rush of intense anxiety symptoms that can last anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes. Not everyone who has panic attacks has panic disorder.
- Panic disorder can also exist with agoraphobia. Agoraphobia is a strong fear of and urge to avoid being in places where escape may be difficult or embarrassing (like crowds and public places).
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—is when someone is a part of or witnesses one or more traumatic events. This can be harmful to their mental health. Some examples of traumatic events are war, assault and other crimes, accidents and natural disasters. In addition to other symptoms, a person suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder can relive these events long after they’re over, through nightmares and flashbacks.
- Social anxiety disorder—is when a person is terrified of social settings because they feel other people are judging them and they fear they’ll embarrass themselves. This is also known as social phobia.
- Separation anxiety—is when a child or teenager experiences extreme anxiety when they are separated or expecting to be separated from their parents or caregivers.
- Specific phobias—is when a person experiences extreme or unreasonable terror when confronted with a certain object, situation or activity. This terror can lead to a strong need to avoid that object or situation. The objects of phobias are diverse and can include fear of dogs, flying, enclosed spaces, water, and blood among others.
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)—is when a person has recurring, unpleasant thoughts (these are called obsessions), like thinking their hands are always dirty. As a result, they may develop repetitive and time-consuming behaviours to try and reduce anxiety or distress (these are called compulsions), like washing their hands hundreds of times a day.
What can I do about it?
Anxiety disorders are among the most treatable mental illnesses. There are a few different things you can do that have been shown by research to help the most:
- Counselling: Many people with anxiety disorders benefit from a special form of counselling called cognitive-behavioural therapy or CBT. A mental health professional trained in the CBT approach can help you work through the thoughts, emotions, behaviours and triggers contributing to your anxiety problems. They can also teach you coping skills. Part of CBT may involve slowly introducing you to things that you may have been avoiding or extremely afraid of until you feel more comfortable with them. CBT is a short-term treatment and requires you to practice the skills during and after treatment.
- Medication: Anti-anxiety medications can be used in combination with counselling to reduce your body’s response to anxiety.
- Support groups: You are not alone. Anxiety disorder support groups are a great way to share your experiences and learn from the experiences of others.
- Self-help: There are some things you can do on your own to help keep you feeling better. Regular exercise, eating well, managing stress, spending time with friends and family, spirituality, and monitoring your use of alcohol and other drugs can help keep anxiety from getting worse or coming back. Talking to your doctor, asking questions, and feeling in charge of your own health are also very important. Always talk to your doctor about what you’re doing on your own.