As humans, we evolved to experience fear and anxiety during dangerous, potentially life-threatening situations. Thanks to fear, people (and other animals) instinctively know to react with a fight or flight response to potential dangers, like grizzly bears, cliff precipices, burning buildings and tornados. Experiencing anxiety when faced with a situation which could truly be dangerous is completely normal, a healthy response.
What Is an Anxiety Disorder? The Difference Between Normal Anxiety and Anxiety Disorder
Since anxiety is an evolutionary function designed to keep people safe, everyone experiences it throughout the normal course of life’s events. Individuals can experience anxiety in safe situations, too.
For example, one might feel anxiety on the first day of school, when trying a new activity or before going on a blind date, but this anxiety is usually considered normal. We wrote a separate article about what is an anxiety attack.
So, what is an anxiety disorder? When does normal anxiety become so extreme it is considered a disorder?
Anxiety is considered a disorder when the fear, stress or anxiety experienced:
- is not proportionate to the situation.
- is inappropriate considering the individual’s age.
- prevents the individual from participating normally in everyday life, work or other activities.
When anxiety hinders a person from enjoying and experiencing life, in what is considered a normal way, the response is considered an anxiety disorder.
Types of Anxiety Disorders
- Agoraphobia – Fear of being in a situation where help might not be available or escape might be difficult or embarrassing. Individuals with agoraphobia sometimes fear public transportation, being in open or enclosed spaces, leaving home alone and/or being in a crowd.
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder – Excessive or persistent worry that interferes with everyday life.
- Panic Disorder – Characterized by intermittent anxiety attacks, which are a combination of extreme emotional and physical anxiety symptoms. Individuals suffering from panic attacks often visit the emergency room with extreme physical symptoms similar to those experienced during a heart attack.
- Phobias – The extreme, irrational fear of any specific thing or situation which hinders normal life.
- Separation Anxiety Disorder – Extreme fear of losing or being separated from close family or friends.
- Social Anxiety Disorder (Social Phobia) – Experiencing extreme discomfort and fear in social situations.
Anxiety Disorder Diagnosis and Treatment
Individuals with an anxiety disorder experience an extreme emotional response, generally considered to be out of proportion to the situation. In addition to emotional distress, patients also often suffer from physical symptoms such as restlessness and insomnia, fatigue, rapid heartbeat, sweating, trembling, blushing, muscle tension, headaches, shortness of breath and symptoms which mimic those of a heart attack.
Individuals with anxiety disorder typically find effective treatment with a combination of medication and psychotherapy (talk therapy and/or cognitive behavior therapy). When patients – being treated with medication, therapy or a combination of the two – commit to a consistent treatment regimen, they experience the best results.
Medication for an anxiety disorder should be taken on a regular schedule, with patients taking care not to miss any doses, following directions as their doctors prescribe and taking medication around the same time each day. For staying on track with pills there are many tools available, from the smartphone alarm clock to a smart pill tracker.
By working closing with their doctors and therapists and committing to their treatment plans, patients with anxiety disorders can find relief and successfully return to experiencing everyday life free from the pressures of extreme anxiety.