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Anxiety: What it is, How to Stop It

Hundreds of thousands of years ago, early man was faced with many dangers. From large predators to small poisonous snakes, they needed a way to make sure that if they were faced with danger, they could react quickly and keep themselves away from harm.

This is called the fight or flight response. It is your body's natural reaction to danger. A part of your brain sends messages to your body that you're in danger, increasing your heart rate (so that you can run faster), causing you to sweat (to keep you cool), and so on. At its core, this fight or flight system is critical for your life and safety.

Unfortunately, many people find that their fight/flight system has gone haywire, and is causing them to experience significant distress even when no immediate danger is present. When your body is reacting like it's in danger without any threat to your safety, you may have what's known as "Anxiety."

Do You Think You Have Anxiety?

At CalmClinic, we have a free 7 minute anxiety test that can score your anxiety severity, tell you what type of anxiety you have, compare your score to others, and provide you with treatment recommendations.

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What is Anxiety?

It is because anxiety is the activation of your fight or flight system that anxiety, at its core, is a good thing. Without anxiety, you would walk into dark alleys alone at night, get into fights with people 10 times your size, and drive 150 miles per hour in a residential area. Anxiety is designed to keep you safe.

The problem is when you are experiencing anxiety when you should not be, or when that anxiety is more severe than it should be in the situation. To see your anxiety severity, take our free 7 minute anxiety test today.

Examples include:

  • Experiencing severe nervousness in public situations.
  • Worrying about health, danger, or worst-case scenarios when everything is likely fine.
  • Feeling anxiety to the point of panic that you cannot seem to control.

These are only a few of the ways that anxiety can manifest itself, but they all have one thing in common – they make your mind and/or body feel like it’s does when it comes face to face with danger.

Types of Anxiety

Anxiety also comes in several different “types.” That is because people can experience anxiety differently. In the world of psychology, those that have recurring or persistent anxiety may have what’s known as an anxiety “disorder,” of which there are several different unique types of anxiety:

  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder – This is essentially just frequent anxiety that doesn’t necessarily get too severe, but also doesn’t seem to go away. Symptoms may be mental, where the person worries all the time about little things. It may also be physical, where the person feels nervous and on edge, feels shaky, etc. For most people it’s some combination of both.
  • Panic Disorder – Panic disorder is characterized by what’s known as “panic attacks.” The word “panic” can be confusing, but they are essentially intense feelings of severe anxiety that often have strong physical symptoms, like chest pains and rapid heart rate. Many people describe it like what they imagine a heart attack feels like, although symptoms can be different for different people.
  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) – Obsessive compulsive disorder is often misunderstood. On TV, it is people that feel like they need to rearrange the table or touch a doorknob. In reality, it is made up of two things: obsessions, which are thoughts that you cannot seem to get rid of that cause you anxiety, and possibly compulsions, which are behaviors that you do to get rid of the thought.
  • Phobias – Phobias are intense feelings of fear about a certain object or situation. Many people are aware of conditions like arachnophobia (fear of spiders) or acrophobia (fear of heights), but almost anything can be a phobia. There is even a phobia known as hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia, which is, almost ironically, the fear of long words.
  • Social Anxiety – Social anxiety, or “social phobia” is a fear of social situations. It is similar to shyness, but often a bit more extreme, where the person with social anxiety has trouble finding and maintaining any friendships or relationships because of this fear of being in public. Usually it involves an intense fear of being embarrassed, judged, or criticized.
  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – Also known as “PTSD,” this a type of anxiety that occurs after a traumatic event, such as seeing violence in war or being assaulted. PTSD symptoms include flashbacks to the event(s), fears of loud noises, and even feeling high anxiety in low anxiety situations because the person experiences stress more easily.

It should also be noted that not everyone’s anxiety fits into these boxes either, and some people will experience anxiety symptoms similar to these issues, but not have it be severe enough to qualify as a “disorder.” Nevertheless, most forms of anxiety have similarities to the types above.

What Causes Anxiety?

The causes of anxiety are not entirely clear. For the vast majority of people that have anxiety, there is no obvious cause. Genetics may play a role, but it does not explain anxiety in full. Some people may have had past experiences that caused them to develop anxiety. Others may have simply been under significant stress, which breaks down your ability to stress cope (stress coping may be linked to anxiety). Others simply develop it naturally with no clear reason.

Anxiety can also be self-sustaining. For example, if you’re someone with social anxiety, you may have an experience where you go out in public, your nervousness causes you to embarrass yourself, and then you reinforce that anxiety in the future. Similarly, you may be someone that worries too much, but then something bad happens and suddenly you feel justified in your worry.

There is some value in identifying what causes your anxiety, but it shouldn’t necessarily be your primary focus. No matter what causes anxiety, you’ll still need to take steps to treat it.

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Do You Have Anxiety?

Anxiety is a much more complex condition than most people give it credit for. You can have anxiety and not even know it. It can cause symptoms that you never thought were linked to anxiety (for example, panic attacks can cause some very strange symptoms, including right side pain and acid reflux), and some people can have anxiety with only physical symptoms – in other words, they have no real worries or concerns, and yet feel the physical symptoms of anxiety anyway.

It is because of this complexity that it’s difficult to simply tell you if you have an anxiety issue or not. Trained psychologists can assess your anxiety, yet it is not always as simple as a few, easy to diagnose symptoms.

For those that think they may have anxiety, but they don’t have any clear and obvious anxiety disorder – such as panic attacks or social phobia, you may be struggling with generalized anxiety disorder, which many people simply refer to as “anxiety.”

Introduction to Generalized Anxiety Disorder

When most people talk about worrying too much or feeling nervous too often, they're usually talking about Generalized Anxiety Disorder, or GAD. As the name suggests, GAD is a psychological disorder characterized by chronic, persistent anxiety without a specific cause.

Those that suffer from GAD often find themselves worrying all the time, as though they can't turn off their mind from worried thinking. This may be seen in a variety of ways:

  • Disaster Thinking Those with GAD may convince themselves of worst case scenarios, worried that they're going to get mugged, catch a terminal disease, that their friends and family may be in danger, and so on.

  • Unyielding Thoughts Those with GAD may also simply be unable to turn off minor worries, focusing on them too strongly and possibly obsessing over them. For example, they may fear talking to their boss, and while their boss isn't going to do anything too harmful, they simply cannot stop thinking about the fact that they have to talk to their boss.

Generalized anxiety disorder may cause people to worry about problems that are big, small, real, and imaginary. It's not so much the worries themselves that are relevant. It's the way that GAD seems to make those worries persistent nearly every day.

Those living with generalized anxiety disorder often also find themselves with a constant feeling of physical stress and tension. In fact, it's possible to have the symptoms of GAD even without worries. If you're constantly feeling stressed or tense, even when you do not feel worried over any specific issue, you may still be suffering from generalized anxiety disorder.

GAD makes dealing with real problems more challenging and creates problems when there are none. It can cause you to feel like you're losing control, and make it hard to imagine living without stress and anxiety. Generalized anxiety disorder can be a very serious problem.

What Causes Generalized Anxiety Disorder?

Like most psychological conditions, generalized anxiety disorder doesn’t have a clear cause for each individual. It's likely that several issues can create GAD:

  • Biology/Genetics
  • Experiences
  • Upbringing

Most likely, some degree of each of these factors reinforces the others. Some people may be more genetically prone to GAD. Others may find that the way that their individual experiences may have created it. You can even develop GAD simply from being too busy to practice stress coping, or from failing to exercise. It's not possible to know each and every factor, because factors differ for each individual patient.

It does appear that those whose families have a history of generalized anxiety disorder appear to be more likely to experience GAD in the future. Yet it's also clear that GAD is not just biological, because many people are able to overcome their anxiety – something that would not be possible if their anxiety was caused by something out of their control.

According to researchers Wittchen and Hoyer, the incidence of GAD tends to increase with age, and women are two times more likely to be diagnosed with GAD. It should be noted, however, that men are also less likely to seek out a diagnosis. It also appears that life conditions may play a role in GAD development, although some issues (such as income level, education, and religious affiliation) do not appear to have an effect on GAD.

Check out the following chart to see the incidence of this condition across age groups and sexes:

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How to Tell if You Have Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Only a psychologist can definitively tell you if you quality for a generalized anxiety disorder diagnosis. In addition, it's possible to be suffering from significant anxiety that can benefit from treatment, even if you don’t technically qualify for a GAD diagnosis.

However, it may be possible to tell if you have GAD. Psychologists use a set of guidelines called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders to diagnose GAD, and according to the DSM-IV-TR (the latest iteration of the DSM), to qualify for a diagnosis an individual must express all or most of the following criteria:

  • Apprehensive Expectations: An excessive, overarching sense of worry and anxiety experienced most of a period of six months, with at least three of the following symptoms:

    • Restlessness/edginess.
    • Fatigue
    • Concentration problems.
    • Absentmindedness.
    • Irritability.
    • Muscle tension/cramps.
  • Inability to Relax: Patients suffering from GAD struggle to stop their worrying, and often their worries become more intense and overwhelming over time.

  • No Focus: Anxiousness seen by the individual doesn't appear to have a focus or a justifiable cause, nor does it cause symptoms like other anxiety disorders.

  • Trouble Functioning: The patients stress and anxiety causes an obstacle in the patient's personal relationships, careers, or social functioning.

  • No Source: All of the above disturbances are not caused by substance abuse or medical condition.

Psychologists use the DSM-IV-TR qualifications along with their personal experience to diagnose GAD. Not everyone experiencing persistent anxiety qualifies for a diagnosis, but all persistent anxiety can benefit from treatment when it disrupts your ability to experience an enjoyable life.

How Common is Generalized Anxiety Disorder?

GAD has the ability you feel lonely and isolated from the world. Yet as many as 3 to 5% of the country suffers from GAD at any given time, and the number of people dealing with persistent anxiety that doesn’t qualify for a diagnosis is considerably higher. Anxiety is an incredibly common condition, and the second most frequent psychological disorder after depression.

It's possible to also suffer from GAD and another anxiety disorder.

Perhaps the greatest problem with GAD is that most people that have the disorder avoid seeking treatment until nearly a decade after it first began. For some, GAD is "manageable" enough that they think they can get through it on their own, but as the years go by they find they can't get the relief they need and end up seeking outside help.

Treating Generalized Anxiety Disorder

If you think you may have generalized anxiety disorder – or any type of anxiety disorder – you may want to see a psychologist or psychiatrist to get an accurate diagnosis. Remember, it's possible to deal with persistent anxiety without a diagnosis of GAD, and it can still be treated – it will just require a different approach than those that have generalized anxiety disorder.

Treatment depends a great deal on what you're suffering from. The best place to start is with my free 7 minute anxiety test. I developed the test specifically to give you an idea of what type of anxiety you're dealing with and provide you with relevant treatment choices.

So start by taking the test here

Need help with anxiety?

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Frequently asked questions

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