KATHRYN HARRIS, LCSW
Individual and Group Psychotherapy,
Training and Consultation
Disorders take Several Forms,
From ON YOUR
Q. I've recently been told I have an anxiety disorder and am not sure what that means. What exactly is anxiety? How is it different from worry or fear? What is the difference between "normal" anxiety, an anxiety attack, and an anxiety disorder? And what do I do about this?
A. If you have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder by a doctor or mental health professional you should ask that person specifically what that diagnosis means for you. The formal diagnosis refers to one or more of twelve different types of anxiety-based problems such as phobias, obsessive-compulsive behavior, anxiety disorder and panic attacks.
Anxiety tends to be a learned response to fear itself, i.e. we become concerned about whether we will be able to handle a particular threatening situation. Generalized anxiety is when aware of the uncomfortable feelings but not of the cause of the threat, i.e. we have got the feelings but not the understanding of the cause. This can be particularly uncomfortable. An anxiety attack usually refers to a sudden, and often unexplained, experience of the physical symptoms, and the feelings of dread and panic with the accompanying fearful thoughts that are associated with anxiety. The unpredictability of these events lead them to be particularly worrisome and debilitating while they are happening. Anticipating the possibility of such attacks is itself a contributor to them.
Simply stated, when we talk about 'worry' we are usually talking about thoughts that disturb us, while we use 'fear' to refer to feelings which come from a broad range of automatic physiological reactions producing a fight or flight response to an anticipated threat. In fact, our worried thoughts tend to increase our fear, and our fearful feelings tend to add to worried thoughts. So thoughts and feelings become interlocked in a self reinforcing cycle. We usually think of anxiety as a combination of these worried thoughts and uncomfortable feelings: an abnormal or overwhelming sense of dread or concern usually accompanied by physical indicators of fear (tension, increased pulse, perspiration, and agitation).
Anxiety, however, like depression, is a very normal experience for us all. The reality is that we all face lots of demands and feel pressure to perform when we are not at all sure that we can. Anxiety, like fear, can be useful in that it can put us on the alert--heighten attention to what is around us, help us to focus on the task at hand, and give extra energy to do what needs to be done. A bit of pre-test anxiety can motivate studying and enhance learning. Too much anxiety, however, can do just the opposite, causing disrupted sleep, appetite disturbance, obsessive thinking, self doubt, and other responses which tend to get in the way of living. As with any other emotion or response, learning what the reaction is and how to work with our response can make the difference between our anxiety being an asset or a liability.
Since anxiety combines the feelings of our body's fear reactions and our learned thought responses to these feelings, we can work with anxiety by addressing either the feelings or the thoughts, or both. Different approaches to managing anxiety include:
It is important to remember that although we have inherited predispositions to anxiety, we can learn how to work with our learned responses and have a wide variety of community resources available to help in that task. The Mental Health Association (656 8308) sponsors several peer support groups for anxiety disorders where group members share their experiences and their coping skills. The MHA also sponsors an annual Anxiety Screening Day in many locations throughout the state during the month of May.
Another fine resource for helping you evaluate anxiety and learn to skills of changing distorted thinking patterns is The Feeling Good Handbook by Dr. David Burns. Local bookstores and libraries have many other good resources for information about specific anxiety disorders.
Do remember that anxiety is a signal from our body that needs to be taken seriously to address. Chronic anxiety can take a serious toll on our health and the general quality of our lives.
Contact me at mailto:kathrynPH@aol.com
Lewes Office: 302-644-9474 (phone and fax)
Newark Office: 302-731-8662 (phone and fax)