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Introduction to Situational Anxiety Disorder

Daniel Sher, MA, Clin Psychology
Introduction to Situational Anxiety Disorder

The term situational anxiety disorder is often mistakenly used to refer to a condition better known as generalized anxiety disorder, or GAD, for short. There is no medically recognized disorder known as situational anxiety disorder. But there are two different anxiety issues that situational anxiety disorder may be confused with:

This article will describe generalized anxiety disorder how to recognize it, what it is caused by, and effective methods that can be used to overcome it. It will also touch on the idea of situational phobias.

Signs of Trouble - The Symptoms of GAD

Often when someone refers to situational anxiety disorder, they are referring instead to Generalized Anxiety Disorder. This is a disorder characterized by excessive, uncontrollable anxiety triggered by numerous and varying stimuli, rather than a singular stimulus. The anxiety can be exacerbated by the symptoms of the anxiety itself. Pay attention to symptoms such as:

The vicious cycle of anxiety causing symptoms that cause further anxiety is, in part, why this disorder is so difficult to overcome or control.

When the above symptoms persist with regularity over a period of at least 6 months in such a way that is disruptive to your life, keeping you from doing the things you want or need to do and causing you undue psychological distress, you may have generalized anxiety disorder.

The Reasons Underlying Your Anxiety

Anxiety isn't something that can be easily pinpointed to any one specific cause. Anxiety often is affected by multiple factors - so many, in fact, that figuring out what initially lead to anxiety may be impossible. Still, persistent and situational anxiety can be caused by multiple factors, including: 

Chemical imbalances linked to anxiety are typically characterized by lowered levels of the chemical known as serotonin. Serotonin is linked to feelings of relaxation and happiness. Some people are born with naturally low levels of serotonin, and others develop an imbalance over time, possible as a result of the above factors.

In such cases, you’re more likely to experience the effects of stress and less likely to benefit from the effects of chemicals such as serotonin. Essentially, this perpetuates the cycle of stress and anxiety. Increasing serotonin levels in the body can be achieved chemically, by way of prescription drugs or supplements, or it can be achieved by making healthy lifestyle changes.

Stress Solutions

While it is going to be important for you to spend some time either thinking about your life situation or consulting with a professional who can help you pinpoint your personal underlying anxiety causes, the following stress solutions are activities that most people find useful in lowering their general stress levels.

Most unhealthy lifestyle choices are self-evident and are fairly easy to replace with healthy ones with the effect of decreasing your anxiety. If you find that your anxiety is not decreased enough by adopting a healthier lifestyle, it is best to talk to your therapist about other options and/or medical solutions that may be right for you.

Situational Phobia

Several years after this article was published, we received an email from a psychologist that noted that some phobias are described as "situational anxiety." Examples include anxiety triggered by hearing someone making vomiting noises, certain types of heights, airplanes, and others that are more "situation specific."

While these experiences may not be termed "situational anxiety disorder," it is possible that someone with "situational anxiety" is experiencing anxiety as a result of a situational phobia.

For those that may have anxiety from situational phobias, we recommend you review our exposure therapy page. There you will find a specific strategy for overcoming situational phobias.

Article Resources
  1. Lopresti, Adrian L., Sean D. Hood, and Peter D. Drummond. A review of lifestyle factors that contribute to important pathways associated with major depression: diet, sleep and exercise. Journal of Affective Disorders 148.1 (2013): 12-27.
  2. Maier, Steven F., and Linda R. Watkins. Stressor controllability, anxiety, and serotonin. Cognitive Therapy and Research 22.6 (1998): 595-613.
  3. Mathew, Sanjay J., Rebecca B. Price, and Dennis S. Charney. Recent advances in the neurobiology of anxiety disorders: implications for novel therapeutics. American Journal of Medical Genetics Part C: Seminars in Medical Genetics. Vol. 148. No. 2. Hoboken: Wiley Subscription Services, Inc., A Wiley Company, 2008.
  4. Selhub, Eva. Nutritional psychiatry: Your brain on food. Retrieved October 21 (2015): 2016.
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