What are anxiety disorders?
In either cognitive or schema therapy we first try to understand exactly what is causing someone’s problems, before going on to help solve them. If someone is struggling with anxiety, part of this understanding is making a diagnosis of exactly which ‘anxiety disorder’ someone is struggling with. Some people find this idea a little uncomfortable, but it’s just like your GP diagnosing whether you have the common cold or flu, so they can prescribe the right treatment.
There are seven anxiety disorders, which I summarise briefly below – map your symptoms on to the disorder to see whether you might have one. If you are unsure, please get an assessment from a cognitive or schema therapist; and remember that it’s common to suffer from more than one of these disorders at the same time, as well as other problems like depression or low self-esteem.
Panic disorder and agoraphobia
A panic attack involves a sudden increase in anxiety, accompanied by physical symptoms of anxiety, such as a racing heart rate, breathlessness or dizziness. Panic disorder involves recurrent panic attacks and may or may not lead to agoraphobia – anxiety about being in situations in which escape would be embarrassing or help would not be available in the case of a panic attack. People with agoraphobia may struggle to leave the house or be in open or public places, like shopping centres.
Health anxiety (also called ‘hypochondriasis’) involves a fear of having a serious illness, like cancer or heart disease, and a preoccupation with bodily symptoms. The problem will not go away with medical reassurance and is often extremely distressing – you may be convinced you have a serious health problem but that no-one believes you, which is understandably frustrating and upsetting.
People with social phobia have a fear of social or performance situations, or both; you may feel comfortable with one trusted friend, but become anxious if their friend joins you. You might be fine in small groups, but the bigger the group the more your anxiety grows. And you might struggle in performance situations, like public speaking or university seminars – you may hate being put on the spot or have the feeling that everyone can see how anxious you are and will think badly of you in some way.
This involves the persistent fear of a particular object of situation – it’s ‘specific’ because you fear that and not a wide range of things. The most common phobias are a fear of heights, public speaking, snakes, spiders, being in enclosed spaces, mice, needles and injections, crowds, clowns, darkness and dogs. Of course, some people struggle with more than one phobia. And it’s worth noting that specific phobias are relatively easy to treat with CBT – in around six sessions or less.
Generalised anxiety disorder
GAD is defined as excessive anxiety and worry occurring more days than not for a period of at least six months and about a number of events or activities. The two key features of this disorder are ‘free-floating’ anxiety, which attaches itself to one thing after another; and persistent worry, which is more severe than normal worry, seems hard to control and causes distress and/or makes it difficult to function.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
If you are suffering from OCD, you will experience obsessions (intrusive images, impulses or thoughts) and/or compulsions (repetitive behaviours engaged in to minimise the anxiety or upset caused by the obsessional thought or because of rigid rules). Although the compulsion – which could involve checking, washing, prayers or replacing negative thoughts/images with positive ones – is intended to reduce distress or prevent a feared outcome, like someone you love being harmed. Unfortunately, the compulsion only provides short-term relief and is a key element of what maintains the OCD.
Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
PTSD occurs as a reaction to a profoundly distressing event that threatened death or serious injury to yourself or other people; a response that involved intense fear, helplessness or horror; and key symptoms of re-experiencing, avoidance and hyperarousal. There is some debate over whether PTSD is an anxiety or stress/trauma disorder, but as it does involve very high levels of anxiety, I have included it here.
If you think you might have an anxiety disorder and would like to arrange a session, email firstname.lastname@example.org