Everyone gets nervous from time to time. In fact, a little bit of anxiety is normal. If you’ve ever had to give a speech or presentation in front of others, you may have experienced some performance anxiety: tingling in your hands and feet, butterflies in your stomach, sweaty palms, rapid breathing.
This is not a clinical panic attack, it is a normal human reaction to a stressful situation and the good news is the feeling usually doesn’t last long. However, it can become a problem when it is constant, out of control, and abnormally intense.
What is an anxiety disorder?
When it comes to abnormal anxiety, what we’re usually talking about is an anxiety disorder. There are many different kinds, but the two most common are Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and phobias.
(Generalized Anxiety Disorder)
Generalized Anxiety Disorder, or GAD, affects millions of Americans every year. Defining characteristics include: feelings of worry that are persistent, excessive, and surround many different daily issues. This is also known as “free-floating” anxiety, suggesting the feelings linger around beyond a single event or area of your life.
These feelings and thoughts typically persist for more than six months, and cause problems in more than two significant areas of a person’s life, like relationships, work, and school.
There is no one known cause of GAD, but there are many different biological and environmental elements associated with it. For example, over-protective parenting and experiencing social anxiety are connected to it, and people with GAD tend to also be more easily frightened and excited than normal. Having generalized anxiety can be difficult, and the resulting fear and anxiety can lead people to avoid potentially meaningful and rewarding life experiences.
Figuring Out Phobias
While generalized anxiety affects many sectors of your life, a phobia is much more specific, often an irrational and intense fear of a specific object, place or situation. The specific object of their phobia causes distress and sometimes panic, and is typically avoided at all costs. For example, a person with a phobia of flying in airplanes will avoid flying, which makes sense. But they may also avoid airports, making plans to travel long distances where flying would be required, and in very severe cases they may even have their phobia triggered by seeing toy airplanes and pictures of airplanes. Phobias are more easily diagnosed, but like GAD, symptoms usually have to persist for six months or so before an official diagnosis can be made.
Like generalized anxiety, there are both biological and environmental factors associated with phobias. We know that parents who are anxious or who possess certain phobias tend to model this behavior for their children, and those children can then develop phobias similar to their parents. Personal experiences can also trigger phobias. For example, a child has a bad experience with a neighbor’s angry dog and then generalizes that fear to all dogs into adulthood. In common with GAD, people suffering from phobias tend to be more easily frightened in general, indicating a biological basis for these disorders as well.
As a leading agency in youth treatment and child welfare in Iowa, it is important to emphasize that this blog is not to be used as a diagnostic tool. While understanding the difference between normal levels of anxiety and an anxiety disorder is important, it is just as important to avoid diagnosing yourself with a mental illness. If you are concerned that you may be experiencing an abnormal amount of anxiety, talk to your doctor or contact a therapist to discuss your symptoms and determine which, if any, treatment option is best for you.
Approaching Anxiety Disorders
Just as there are many types of anxiety, there are a variety of treatments and approaches to managing a diagnosed anxiety disorder.
- Deep breathing exercises can provide relief for some with anxiety as it triggers the parasympathetic nervous system. Essentially, you are telling your body to calm down and it gives your body a moment to relax and recuperate, which can help you collect your thoughts.
- Therapy is for everyone, but can be especially helpful for people struggling with anxiety. In therapy, people with anxiety can learn to challenge their unhelpful thoughts and change them, or learn to accept them and let them go. Additionally, therapy provides a place where people can express themselves without fear of judgement: simply talking about your worries can help diminish them.
- Counselors also utilize research-supported approaches to helps clients overcome their phobias. This includes a common approach known as exposure therapy, where clients work through triggers from the very mild to the more threatening to desensitize themselves over time. Although avoidance is a very normal response to something scary, it can actually make a phobia worse by keeping the person from facing their fears and instead letting the fear control them. If possible, people with phobias should face what scares them on their own, which often helps them tame their own fear! Doing so in therapy is a great approach for those living with phobias.
- If your anxiety still seems unbearable, consider talking to your doctor about medication. There are many medications available today that treat anxiety and can aid in living a more balanced, full life.