Anxiety Disorders Defined

Anxiety Disorders Defined

Anxiety Disorders together comprise the most common reason for seeking mental health treatment, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. While many of us will at one time or another feel anxious, anxiety disorders result when a person experiences anxiety symptoms on a regular basis. Common anxiety disorders affecting college students include Panic Disorder, Social Phobia, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Simple Phobias (such as medical phobias or air travel), Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. With all anxiety disorders, there is a sense of marked emotional and often physical distress that varies depending on the type of problem. Because many individuals tend to avoid the situations that trigger their distress, anxiety disorders can persist or worsen without treatment. However, anxiety disorders are very treatable conditions. There is a high genetic factor to anxiety disorders, however experiential and environmental factors can also play a significant role. Students suffering from these problems can begin the recovery process by making an initial appointment at Counseling and Psychological Services. Below you will find a summary of the most commonly experienced anxiety issues.

Panic Disorder:
Your heart is pounding out of your chest, you're sweating, and you think you might faint. Is it a heart attack? A stroke? No, it's a panic attack.
Characterized by feelings of physical distress, panic attacks can cause heart palpitations, shortness of breath, lightheadedness, tingling, shaking, stomach upset, trouble swallowing or a tight throat, sweating, and a host of other symptoms which trigger the sympathetic nervous system's fight or flight response. Although it may seem that these symptoms come out of the blue to sufferers, a variety of physical and emotional factors make them more predictable, and there are many ways of alleviating the intensity of symptoms. (See our links on breathing to reduce anxiety, and mindfulness, for example). Sometimes people avoid triggers to their distress, and end up with a form of avoidance known as agoraphobia, as the distress worsens. It's a good idea to get help for this problem, either individually, or from the clinic's anxiety disorder group, offered once a year.

Social Phobia:
You are sweating, distracted by what you are going to say, yet hoping the professor doesn't call on you. Oh please, please don't let her call on me!
This is how people with social phobia often feel. Social Phobia is not just shyness. It's a problem where irrational fears of what others might think affect behavior and cause significant discomfort and/or avoidance. Individuals with social phobia may spend a lot of time thinking about what they have said or will say in social situations or in public speaking situations. Sometimes it affects students in classroom settings but not in social situations, or vice versa. It is often accompanied by the symptoms of a panic attack. It usually also involves an intense scrutiny of oneself or what others may be thinking which becomes habitual and unpleasant.

Specific phobias:
There are too many different phobias to list them all. Medical phobias and phobias related to travel are the most common ones seen among college students. Treatment of phobias may involve something called exposure therapy, where the fear is systematically confronted until it has lost its impact. While this may seem simple, it is best to work on this type of problem with a mental health practitioner. While other anxiety sufferers often feel like fainting and don't, individuals with medical phobias will often faint. Therapy can turn this around. So if you want to earn a degree in medicine but have a medical phobia, don't let that hold you back!

Generalized Anxiety Disorder:
I think I should go to the library. No, I should exercise. No, I should see my friend who I've neglected. No, I should..arghh! People with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) tend to feel pressured, worried, and restless. Often people with this problem think about one responsibility after another and are distracted from enjoyable activities by intrusive thoughts about what they "should" be doing. Although they may have many different worries, there is often a unifying theme to their worrying, such as a fear of failure, or approval. They sometimes have trouble concentrating, falling asleep, and can experience physical sensations of anxiety from time to time.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder:
OCD, like GAD, involves excessive worry around certain themes, including but not limited to health or safety, cleanliness and germs, or failure. A person with this disorder may wash their hands excessively; check the locks on their doors or the knobs on their stove, or have mental rituals of counting or reviewing events to feel in control. They may suffer from intrusive, sometimes morbid thoughts that pertain to doing something out of control or abhorrent, with accompanying strategies to quell these thoughts. It can be very difficult to study and socialize with all this going on in one's head. Since only 2% of the sufferers with this disorder get well without treatment, it's a good idea to get help. Usually, a combination of medication and therapy are used, and can be very effective in treating this condition.

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder:
After experiencing or witnessing an event in which you expected a serious injury or even death to occur, you are not sleeping well; you keep re-living the experience; you feel vigilant about your safety, jumpy, anxious, and have mood swings. These are the common symptoms of PTSD. Victims of natural disasters, crime, or survivors of sexual trauma commonly experience these symptoms, which are the brain's way of coping with salient events long after these events have ended. Sometimes a more recent event or anniversary will trigger these symptoms long after the original trauma occurred. Discussing the trauma, along with learning effective strategies for managing the feelings of anxiety associated with it, can help immeasurably.

While these brief descriptions are by no means exhaustive, perhaps they will help you realize there is a name for your distress, and help is available. Please make an appointment today if you think you may be experiencing any of these issues. The number for Brown Counseling and Psychological Services is 863-3476, and we are open M-F, 8:30-5.

Aleta Johnson, MSW