Anxiety is a complex emotional mental state, that is often prolonged and triggered by an initial fear.
For example, you could feel anxious about walking into the forest with a friend, because you may encounter a spider. The basic fear is having an encounter with a spider; however, the state of persistent anxiety, apprehension and physical arousal experienced due to the possibility of being exposed to a spider is referred to as anxiety.
Fear is an automatic response to a specific stimulus or circumstance that results from a perception of danger or potential threat.
For someone who may have a fear of spiders (arachnophobia), anything that may suggest the presence of a spider such as a web, may elicit a fear response.
The individual may also have thoughts about the spider being present and physically feel tense, with symptoms like chest tightness or heart palpitations.
This fear may also lead to changes in behaviour, such as avoiding situations where they are at risk of exposure to any spiders. With regards to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, the main characteristic of fear is related to the thought of imminent threat.
The Fear Response Versus the Anxiety Response
The fear response:
- Is an emotional state that is intense and activated in response to imminent threat;
- The ‘fight or flight’ response (a physiological state that maintains functionality and survival) that is activated and increases physiological arousal to stay and fight the imminent threat, or to escape the situation;
- Causes the individual to feel a sense of apprehensiveness and distress.
Examples of fear responses include being held at gunpoint, or being involved in a motor accident.
On the other hand, the anxiety response:
- Is an emotional state that is often subjective and in response to perceived stress or fear;
- May not have an identifiable cause, and does not pose any threat to survival/immediate danger;
- Is often more prolonged, or a constant state, that impairs functionality at times;
- Is related to worrying. Worrying helps prepare individuals for a perceive threat, however, not having a control over worrying may constitute an anxiety disorder.
Types of Anxiety Disorders
The five major types of anxiety disorders include:
Generalised Anxiety Disorder: Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is a form of anxiety disorder that is characterised by chronic and exaggerated fears, worries and tension regardless of the circumstance and situation.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD): Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is an anxiety disorder comprised of recurring and obsessional thoughts, repetitive behaviours or compulsions. Examples include repetitive hand washing, counting, or rituals that provide immediate relief. However not performing such behaviours significantly increases anxiety.
Panic Disorder: Panic disorder is an anxiety disorder which is comprised of unexpected and recurring episodes of intense fear, accompanied by physical arousal symptoms such as heart palpitations, shortness of breath or chest pain.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is an anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to a distressing ordeal in which physical or emotional harm has occurred or was threatened. Symptoms include a sense of reliving the traumatic event (through ‘flashbacks’ or nightmares), avoidance of places, people, or activities which remind the person of the event, feeling numb or detached from others, having negative thoughts about oneself and the world, feeling irritable, angry, or wound up, and having trouble sleeping.
Social Anxiety Disorder: Social Anxiety Disorder is an overwhelming anxiety and disproportionate self-consciousness in common social situations. This often leads to the person avoiding social situations or public situations.
Causes of Anxiety Disorders
Whilst there is no single cause for anxiety disorders, there are several risks, triggers and attributes that contribute to the disorder. The following factors may play a role:
- Genes: there are genetic components to certain anxiety disorders, with some disorders being prevalent in families;
- Physical health: there is a correlation between poor physical health and tendencies to develop symptoms of anxiety, due to vulnerability factors;
- Thinking style: thought patterns, low-self-esteem and unhelpful behaviours and negative coping strategies are also related to anxiety disorders;
- Stress: stressful circumstances such as marital breakdown or workplace stress also trigger anxiety disorders.
How a Psychologist can Help
In therapy, you may be asked to fill in a questionnaire and answer questions about your life through an initial assessment. Together with the psychologist, a treatment plan is developed to help with your anxiety.
Techniques for therapy include Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Mindfulness, Exposure Therapy, Relaxation and Breathing techniques, Cognitive restructuring and Exposure techniques. The Psychologist may also help you modify behaviours or lifestyle factors that may help increase your capacity to cope and reduce your anxiety symptoms.
Author: Shokria Siddiqui, BSc.Psych, PGDipPsych, PGDipMH, MPsych, MAPS.
Shokria Siddiqui is a Brisbane Psychologist working with all ages, however she has a particular interest in children and adolescents. By implementing evidence-based therapies that have been scientifically tested, building rapport with her clients, and creating a safe therapeutic space, Shokria helps her clients and their families to better meet life’s challenges.
To make an appointment with Brisbane Psychologist Shokria Siddiqui, try Online Booking – Mt Gravatt or call Vision Psychology on (07) 3088 5422.
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- Chambless, D. L., Fydrich, T., & Rodebaugh, T. L. (2008) Generalized social phobia and avoidant personality disorder: Meaningful distinction or useless duplication? Depression and anxiety, 25(1), 8-19.