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Your questions answered: What is anxiety?

by Sarah Graham
Friday 19 December 2014
6064 35616

RSCPP-listed Accredited Psychotherapist Sandra Zecevic-Gonzalez responds to recent news about anxiety's ranking in this year's Google searches, and answers any questions you may have about the condition...


What is anxiety?

According to recent reports, 'What is anxiety?' was the 8th most searched for 'what is' question of 2014 on Google UK. Seven out of the top ten questions involved health-related topics: 'What is Ebola?', 'What is Autism?', 'What is Gluten?' and so on, and the fact that anxiety made it onto the list is hardly surprising, since it is the most commonly experienced mental health condition.

Anxiety manifests itself sometimes as incessant worry, other times as panic, but fear and an intolerance of uncertainty are usually at the core of the condition. Its physical symptoms evoke the 'Flight or Fight' response: breathlessness, increased blood pressure and heart rate, muscle tension, sweating, slowing of the digestive and immune systems, and difficulty concentrating.

We all experience anxiety, fear, worry or panic at times, especially living in a fast-paced, constantly changing and competitive society like ours. The body uses anxiety to help the mind recognise a potential threat and find a way to stay safe. It is when anxiety or worry occur on a consistent, severe, and often permanent basis, that they become unhealthy – not just emotionally but physically.


How is anxiety treated?

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which is recommended by NICE guidelines, is the most common psychotherapeutic intervention for anxiety disorders.

There are different types of anxiety disorders and getting a proper diagnosis is essential. For help in assessing what psychotherapeutic intervention would most likely benefit you, speaking to your GP or a mental health professional is the best way forward. The treatment you receive will greatly depend on your specific symptoms.

Treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) differs greatly from that for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). A more relational, humanistic psychotherapeutic approach may help those with generalised anxiety or worry. For others, especially when the issue stems from past trauma or loss that has had significant implications throughout life, psychodynamic therapy may be an option.

An assessment, normally conducted by a therapist or psychologist at your initial session, can provide a workable diagnosis for your anxiety disorder.


What are the different types of anxiety?

1 in 10 people experience Panic Disorder or Panic Attacks. An overwhelming sense of fear and apprehension, combined with strong fight or flight symptoms, characterise these very distressing, but generally harmless and short-lived episodes.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder manifests itself initially through intrusive thoughts that cause anxiety and lead to ritualistic or repetitive behaviours (such as repetitively washing your hands) to relieve that anxiety.

An irrational fear of an animal, object, place or situation that would normally not worry most people is a Phobia. Coming into contact, or even the thought of coming into contact, with the feared stimuli causes anxiety or panic.

The acute fear or terror experienced during a traumatic event or a life-or-death situation can be overwhelming and have long-lasting consequences. Symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder often involve flashbacks, nightmares and panic.

Generalised Anxiety Disorder is a condition that makes people worry and feel anxious about general situations and issues, rather than a specific one. People with GAD may feel anxious most days and struggle to relax.

If your worry is focused on your health and you are hypervigilant about bodily symptoms, you may be suffering from Health Anxiety Disorder or Hypochondriasis. If you worry about how you appear in social situations, fear ridicule and rejection from others and/or experience extreme performance anxiety, Social Anxiety or Social Phobia may be the problem.

Less common anxiety disorders are Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) and Trichotillomania. BDD is a condition characterised by an excessive preoccupation with an imagined (or real) defect in appearance. Trichotillomania affects approximately 4% of the population and is an impulse control disorder. Afflicted individuals are prone to hair loss from repeated urges to pull or twist off the hair. 

Finding support

You can find out more about symptoms and causes of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and Panic Disorder, including how to find a therapist. If this route is not appropriate for you, your GP can assess you and direct you towards support.

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Updated 29 December 2014