The Alarm System
In general, you can think of anxiety as your body’s built-in “alarm system,” designed to protect you from potential dangers. Your alarm system includes a “cognitive” part (that is, your thoughts—riveting your attention to a possible danger), a physiological part (which you might experience as shortness of breath, increased heart rate, sweaty palms, trembling, feeling lightheaded, etc.), and a behavioral part (that is, trying to avoid or escape from danger). Everyone experiences anxiety from time to time and it motivates us to protect ourselves from danger.
However, sometimes anxiety becomes chronic (as in frequent worry), or extremely intense (as in particular fears, or during panic attacks). Anxiety can be problematic if it causes intense distress to the person experiencing it, or if it interferes significantly with one’s life. For example, if anxiety leads a person to avoid meeting new people, or avoid traveling, or avoid taking a promotion, or avoid any activities in which s/he wishes s/he could participate, it may be interfering with his or her living life to the fullest. If anxiety is interfering with your happiness or functioning, treatment can help!
Types of Problematic Anxiety
Anxiety is problematic when it causes significant distress or interferes with functioning.
Panic Attacks: Sudden episodes of intense fear that peak in a few minutes or less and involve strong body sensations such as heart racing, shortness of breath, light-headedness, derealization, etc.
Panic Disorder: Repeated panic attacks that occur out of the blue (without warning) and lead a person to fear the next attack or its imagined consequences (for example, heart attack or fainting).
Agoraphobia: Avoidance of any situations in which escape or obtaining help might be difficult or embarrassing if a panic attack or other problem were to occur. In its most severe form, people become afraid to leave home at all. Often, driving (especially on freeways) and other traveling is avoided or endured with distress.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder: Excessive, persistent worry about unlikely bad things that could occur.
Social Anxiety Disorder: Discomfort in social interactions with other people due to fear of making mistakes or being judged negatively that leads to avoidance of these situations and negatively impacts social connectedness.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: Repeatedly thinking particular intrusive, fearful thoughts (for example, about germs or violence) and performing behaviors (for example, handwashing or checking for safety) to try to stop the thoughts and relieve the anxiety accompanying them.
Specific Phobias: Fears of particular insects, animals, natural disasters, situations (such as flying, heights, elevators), or blood/injections that interfere in full quality of living.
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: Repeatedly re-experiencing a traumatic event that actually occurred (such as an act of violence or a natural disaster) through nightmares, flashbacks, or periods of intense fear, accompanied by other symptoms (including avoidance and increased physiological arousal, as well as changes in mood and thinking).
Illness Anxiety Disorder: Sometimes called hypochondriasis, or health anxiety, this includes distressing fear that mundane physical symptoms (such as a headache or dizziness) indicate that one is suffering from a severe medical condition, even when medical testing or examination shows no evidence of this.