Introduction

Approximately 26.4 crore people globally [3.8 crore Indians] suffer from a diagnosable anxiety disorder. Of course, 100% of people experience anxiety on occasion. Anxiety is a feeling that something threatening or dire will come to pass at some point in the future. [As opposed to fear, which is a feeling that one gets when one is in the midst of something that is perceived as a threat.] Because the experience of anxiety is internal and personal, people sometimes have difficulty determining what it is that they are feeling, and what they can do about it. Is it a persistent imbalance of brain chemistry, or is it one’s reaction to great uncertainty in one’s future? Should one seek a psychiatrist, or will practices that curb the stress response, such as yoga, improve one’s state of mind while the future sorts itself out. This post will offer some insight into the differences between anxiety disorders and elevated anxiety.

One common (but not ever-present) difference between those with anxiety disorders versus those experiencing elevated anxiety is that individuals with anxiety disorders often can’t identify a particular cause of their anxious feelings. The individual may experience  intense physical symptoms and overpowering emotional feelings that they don’t understand. 

People often feel reluctant to discuss these matters because there is a stigma attached to mental health conditions. Even friends and family members can sometimes be dismissive because they apply their own internal experience to what the anxious person is describing. This misapplication of one’s internal experience combined with the ill-understood cause, sometimes results in confidants who conclude that the person is “overreacting” or  “just needs to get a grip.” 

Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in elevated anxiety levels among many individuals who would otherwise be without symptoms. At the moment, huge numbers of people feel anxious about the possibilities of becoming sick, of the financial impact of lost business during the lock-down, or of losing loved ones. Under such conditions, being anxious is to be expected — and isn’t necessarily an indication that one is mentally ill. So let’s discuss the nature of anxiety disorders.

“Anxiety Disorder” is actually a group of disorders. Below, we’ll have a look at each of the major categories included.

Types of Anxiety Disorders

1. Generalized Anxiety Disorder [GAD]: 

Technically, a diagnosis of GAD involves having anxiety during a majority of days over six straight months. [This doesn’t mean that one should wait six months to get help if one feels so anxious that one is having trouble functioning in life.] The takeaway is that being anxious once in a while, particularly in the presence of well-defined stressors, doesn’t mean that one has Generalized Anxiety Disorders. Sufferers of GAD often can’t identify a cause of their anxiety. Whether or not they can determine why they feel that way, they feel tense and unfocused, and they may have run away negative thoughts. Additionally, they may or may not experience a number of physical symptoms such as fatigue, troubled sleep, sweating, nausea, trembling, and muscle aches. 

2. Phobias

Phobias are persistent, intense, and  irrational fears of specific objects or situations that cause an individual to engage in avoidance behavior. “Irrational” is a loaded term that requires some explanation. If the object of one’s fear is capable of harming one, it’s not irrational to fear it. Many people with phobias recognize that they aren’t actually threatened, but still feel they have no control of the matter. If one’s fear doesn’t cause one to engage in avoidance behaviors (going out of your way to avoid said object) it’s not generally considered a phobia.  

There are a vast number of phobias. You may have heard of some of the more common ones: e.g. spiders (arachnophobia,) heights (acrophobia,) flying (aerophobia), dogs (cynophobia,) needles / shots (trypanophobia,) leaving the house (agoraphobia), or germs / contamination (mysophobia.) You may also have heard of some of the less common ones: clowns (coulrophobia,) long words (hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia,) puppets (pupaphobia,) cheese (turophobia,) and being without a phone (nomophobia.) 

However, one of the more common phobias might be missed because it’s usually called social anxiety disorder [SAD] — though it also goes by the name “social phobia.” This is an anxiety about being seen by others or having to interact with other people. It should be pointed out that not everyone who turns down going out to a club or a party in favor of reading a book at home is phobic. Introverted individuals — meaning those who find it mentally draining to be in intensely stimulating environments for too long [or unexpectedly,] may or may not have SAD. But, extroverted people can also have social phobia. If a person attends functions when necessary and is not mortified the whole time — particularly with sufficient prior  knowledge — it’s not likely SAD.  

As with GAD, various physical symptoms may accompany phobias, including: sweating, rapid heartbeat, tightness in the chest,  breathlessness, and nausea. 

3. Panic Attacks:

Panic disorder is a condition in which the individual suffers panic attacks. Unlike the persistent feelings of anxiety of GAD, panic disorder results in brief but physically intense anxiety that can include: chest pain, a racing pulse, breathlessness, and a fear that one is in the process of dying. Like GAD, however, there may not be any obvious cause. 

4. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder [PTSD]:

Some experts include PTSD under the umbrella of anxiety disorders while others do not. As the name implies, this condition is observed in individuals who’ve experienced a traumatic or terrifying event. Again, not every person who is involved with such an event and experiences intense feelings about it is suffering from PTSD. As with other disorders, one key is whether the effects persist over a long period and another is whether the condition adversely affects one’s ability to go about one’s daily life. 

One factor that can complicate diagnosis is that occasionally the signs of PTSD don’t strike until long after (sometimes years after) the traumatizing event. The common symptoms include: intrusive and disturbing memories, avoidance behaviors, negativity in mood and thoughts, and severe emotional or physical reactions to events that remind one of the trauma.

5. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder [OCD]: 

Like PTSD, OCD is not always grouped with anxiety disorders, and — in recent years — OCD has more often been put in a class of its own. OCD is one of the more confused disorders. The term has come to be used in common speech for anyone who is neat, tidy, or has peculiar quirks — such as feeling a meal is ruined if a given food touches another food on one’s plate. Besides persisting over a long period, the key to determining whether someone has OCD is whether they engage in dysfunctional behaviors. If a person’s fastidious and peculiar ways don’t detract from their ability to function in their daily lives, it’s not likely to be OCD. That said, it’s possible to not realize that one’s obsessions or compulsions are abnormally intense until it is seen how much time is wasted with them.

Conclusion

It’s been estimated that one in five people will experience a diagnosable anxiety disorder over the course of their lifetime. But there are many ways to reduce the damage done by anxiety.

If YOU feel that the physical and emotional symptoms you are experiencing are preventing you from living a fulfilling life, you should seek the help of a mental health professional.  

EKA offers many practices that can help reduce physical tension, increase mental clarity, and manage negative thinking, including: movements, breath exercises, relaxation practices, meditations, and more.  

Resources:

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health [NCCIH- US]: 

NCCIH Anxiety page: https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/anxiety-at-a-glance

National Health Portal [India]: 

Anxiety Page: https://www.nhp.gov.in/Anxiety-Disorders_mtl

National Institute of Mental Health [US]:

Anxiety page: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/any-anxiety-disorder.shtml

National Institute of Mental Health and Neuroscience [NIMHANS – India]: 

Psychiatry page: http://nimhans.ac.in/psychiatry/

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