Anxiety Disorder: Do You Have A Type?

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Anxiety Disorder: Do You Have A Type?


Anxiety. It’s a feeling we all recognize. Maybe you find your heart racing before a big presentation. Maybe your breathing becomes labored when you step onto an airplane. Maybe you have trouble sleeping because you’re anticipating a difficult conversation with a friend.

It is normal to experience moments of worry, anticipation, and even physical manifestations of that distress at times. However, if these kinds of symptoms are frequent and interfere with your daily life, they could be signs of an anxiety disorder.

So, what are the different types of anxiety disorders, and how do you determine whether you might benefit from professional treatment? This article outlines information on some of the most common anxiety disorders and how they can be treated.

A Word on Diagnoses

This article describes a number of diagnoses that may apply to different manifestations of anxiety. However, diagnoses are not set in stone, nor do they always encompass the full extent of a disorder.

Mental health diagnoses can be more subjective than many medical diagnoses. For example, one mental health professional may diagnose a person with generalized anxiety disorder, while another may diagnose the same person with social anxiety disorder. That does not necessarily mean that one diagnosis is right and the other is wrong, as long as the treatment results in an improvement of quality of life in the patient.

Everyone is different, as are their manifestations of anxiety. In other words, a diagnosis should be used as a guide to direct you to the right treatment for your specific set of symptoms.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Generalized anxiety disorder is the most all-encompassing of the anxiety disorders. This disorder causes sufferers excessive and uncontrollable worry, and apprehension about events and activities. People living with generalized anxiety disorder may also experience physical manifestations of their anxiety, including difficulty breathing, increased heart rate, gastrointestinal distress, excessive sweating, and sleeplessness.

In order to receive a diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder, the symptoms must also interfere with a person’s daily functioning. Some people with generalized anxiety disorder have difficulty bringing themselves to do the things they have become anxious about. They may also find that their routines are disturbed by their physical symptoms. For example, they may find that they feel the need to be near a restroom due to the gastrointestinal issues that can arise, or that they often feel fatigued because of the sleeplessness that can arise.

If you feel you may be living with generalized anxiety disorder, a mental health professional, like a clinical social worker, psychologist, or psychiatrist, can help you to find the right diagnosis. Generalized anxiety disorder responds well to psychotherapy, medication, or a combination of the two.

Social Anxiety Disorder and Agoraphobia

Social anxiety disorder and agoraphobia are similar conditions, but they aren’t exactly the same. Social anxiety disorder is a disorder that causes extreme discomfort with social interactions. This can be rooted in a fear of being judged, criticized, or humiliated and can be a hindrance to having a full social life. Social anxiety disorder can also cause difficulty in the professional realm, at school, or even in activities of daily living like grocery shopping.

Agoraphobia is a similar condition to social anxiety disorder in that it frequently involves a fear of social situations. However, agoraphobia is different in that it is more focused on a fear that one will feel trapped or helpless in public settings. For example, a person living with agoraphobia might fear that they will be unable to escape a humiliating situation taking place on public transportation. Sometimes people develop agoraphobia after experiencing a panic attack in public.

Luckily, both social anxiety disorder and agoraphobia are highly treatable. Both conditions respond to psychotherapy and/or medication. A type of therapy called exposure therapy can be particularly helpful for these conditions. In exposure therapy, patients are slowly exposed to situations that they fear in a safe environment, which conditions them to the idea that their fears are unlikely to unfold as they have imagined.

Panic Disorder

Panic disorder is a condition in which sufferers experience sudden, unexpected bouts of physical symptoms caused by anxiety called panic attacks (sometimes called “anxiety attacks”). Panic attacks are characterized by symptoms like racing or pounding heartbeat, excessive sweating, chills, shaking, shortness of breath, nausea, and numbness or tingling in the extremities.

Panic attacks can be very frightening, and sometimes those who experience them report that they feel as though they are dying or having a heart attack. Although panic attacks can feel this way, they are not inherently a danger to one’s health. That said, it is still important to seek medical attention to rule out other underlying causes.

While it is possible to experience just a single panic attack and never experience one again, those who experience one panic attack will often experience another at some point. Just as problematic is the fact that those who experience panic attacks often develop a phobia of experiencing one again. In fact, this can be a facet of agoraphobia, as people who experience panic attacks may become fearful that they will have one in a public setting and be unable to get to safety.


A phobia is an anxiety disorder in which the sufferer fears specific objects, animals, or situations. The main characteristic of a phobia is that the fear is disproportionate to the actual danger presented by the object of the person’s fear.

There are five categories of phobias, including:

  • Fear of animals (e.g. arachnophobia - a fear of spiders)
  • Fear of the environment (e.g. astraphobia - fear of the weather)
  • Fear of injury, illness, or bodily harm (e.g. algophobia - fear of pain)
  • Fear of specific situations (e.g. claustrophobia - fear of confined spaces)

Phobias may cause people to avoid certain situations where they fear they may encounter the object of their fear. This can have a profound impact on a person’s life, preventing them from engaging in activities they once enjoyed.

Phobias, like the anxiety disorders described above, are treatable with psychotherapy, medication, or a combination of both. Like social anxiety disorder and agoraphobia, these conditions respond well to exposure therapy. This type of therapy slowly introduces a patient to their phobia to allow the person to experience the object or situation as benign, or less dangerous than the person initially believed.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, often referred to simply as OCD, is an anxiety disorder characterized by an involuntary impulse to engage in repetitive actions in an effort to quell anxiety. Broadly, there are five categories of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder:

  • Organization focused OCD: People with this type of OCD may experience distress if objects are out of place or disorganized. They may spend a lot of time and energy making sure their home or workplace is organized in a precise way.
  • Contamination focused OCD: People with this type of OCD experience fear of becoming ill through the transmission of a virus or bacteria, or that they will be or feel unclean. They may wash their hands or clean their homes excessively. They may also avoid people or situations that cause them to feel unclean.
  • Intrusive thought focused OCD: People with this type of OCD have frightening or otherwise distressing fears and thoughts pop into their head in a way that feels entirely out of their control. Sometimes people feel guilt or shame about these thoughts, as they can be about harming someone or doing something that the person finds abhorrent. In most cases, the person would never actually act on those thoughts.
  • Rumination focused OCD: While this is similar in some ways to intrusive thought OCD, in rumination focused OCD, a person is unable to stop repeating the same thoughts over and over again.
  • Checking focused OCD: In checking focused OCD, a person develops an obsession with making sure they do not cause harm to themselves or others. This may manifest as a compulsion to check locks multiple times before leaving the house, make sure the iron has been turned off, or making sure valuables are still in the right place over and over.

For a person with OCD, the act of performing their compulsion provides momentary relief from anxiety and the associated obsession, which motivates an impulse to repeat the action.

Living with an anxiety disorder can be challenging, and at times, may even feel distressing. The good news is that it is possible to overcome or manage anxiety. If you are experiencing any of the symptoms above, a psychologist, clinical social worker, mental health counselor, or psychiatrist can help you to find the right treatment for you.

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