Anxiety vs. Anxiety Disorders

In a nutshell, anxiety becomes an anxiety disorder when the anxiety that you are experiencing is greater than what you might expect in a given situation, and when it begins to interfere with some aspect of your life. For example, if your anxiety prevents you from forming desired relationships with people or meeting your responsibilities at work or school, this may be a sign that normal anxiety has shifted to a disorder of anxiety. In addition, if you find that you are engaging in unhealthy behaviors in an attempt to avoid or reduce your anxiety (such as drinking or using drugs), there is a good chance that you have a problem with anxiety.

There are six main anxiety disorders:

Specific Phobia
The first anxiety disorder is specific phobia. In this disorder, people experience such intense fear (even to the point of having a panic attack) when they come into contact with certain objects or situations that they take steps to avoid these objects or situations. Common specific phobias include acrophobia (fear of heights), odontophobia (fear of dentists), arachnophobia (fear of spiders), ophidiophobia (fear of snakes), and claustrophobia (fear of enclosed spaces).

Social Anxiety Disorder
Social anxiety disorder (also called “social phobia”) is another anxiety disorder, in which a person experiences intense fear and anxiety in social situations due to a fear of negative evaluation (for example, being judged). And, just as with specific phobia, this intense fear often results in the avoidance of these social situations. The most common type of situation that people fear in social anxiety disorder is public speaking; however, there are other situations that people with social anxiety disorder may also fear, such as eating in front of people, urinating in public restrooms, or writing in front of people

Panic Disorder
A person with panic disorder experiences frequent, out-­of-­the-blue panic attacks, as well as worry about the meaning or outcome of those panic attacks. For example, people with panic disorder might fear that a panic attack is a sign that they are dying or going crazy. As a result of these panic attacks, people with panic disorder often try to avoid activities or situations that might bring on symptoms of arousal, such as exercise or eating heavy meals. In extreme cases, people with panic disorder may fear leaving home, because it is the only place where they feel safe. If this happens, a person may be diagnosed with panic disorder with agoraphobia.

Obsessive-­Compulsive Disorder
This disorder has received a fair amount of attention in the media recently. In obsessive-­compulsive disorder (OCD), a person experiences intense, intrusive, and repetitive troublesome thoughts and ideas that might be viewed as strange and that are not about real-­life problems. These out-­of-­the-­ordinary thoughts and ideas are called obsessions. For example, people with this disorder may have persistent fears that they are going to accidentally poison their children, catch a disease, or harm someone else. As a result of these obsessions, people with OCD then engage in repetitive behaviors (or compulsions) to reduce the anxiety associated with those obsessions, such as excessive hand washing, ordering, checking, or performing mental rituals (such as counting).

Generalized Anxiety Disorder
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is characterized by excessive, persistent, and uncontrollable worry about many different concerns. Sometimes people confuse GAD with OCD because both include the experience of repetitive thoughts. However, worry is different from obsession, because the worry in GAD is about real-­life or daily concerns, such as finances, work, and relationships. Worry in GAD is actually viewed as an attempt to avoid or distract a person from more-­upsetting and anxiety-­provoking thoughts and feelings

Post-­Traumatic Stress Disorder
Finally, post-­traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is unique among the anxiety disorders, because it is the only one that requires people to have experienced some type of traumatic event before they can be diagnosed with it. PTSD is diagnosed when a person experiences a set of symptoms more than thirty days after exposure to a traumatic event. The symptoms of PTSD include intrusive thoughts and memories about the traumatic event (for example, flashbacks or feeling as if the event were happening all over again), avoidance of reminders of the traumatic event, difficulties experiencing positive emotions, feeling detached from others, and hyperarousal and hypervigilance (or always feeling on guard). If someone experiences these symptoms within one month after a traumatic event, we call the disorder acute stress disorder.

Sources: The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook for Anxiety

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