Anxiety disorder is a catchall term that encompasses everything from fear, panic, nervousness and worrying. We get nervous when forced to do an activity that requires us to go well out of our comfort zone. The fear of a negative consequence is a major factor. We all go through times when we fear or feel nervous about certain situations. And those don’t count as symptoms of anxiety disorder.
What is anxiety disorder?
Anxiety disorder is a state where there is a constant sense of fear, worry and nervousness. The distress is sometimes so overwhelming that it impairs day-to-day activities. In General anxiety disorder, there is worry or apprehension about everyday things, “characterized by elevated sensitivity to threat.” A study, titled “What Is an Anxiety Disorder?”, by a group of educational institutions in the U.S. in collaboration with the American Psychiatric Association, identified a major cause of anxiety disorder:
“The anxiety disorders are characterized by a preconscious attentional bias toward personally relevant threat stimuli, and a bias to interpret ambiguous information in a threat-relevant manner.”
What does it mean?
Everyone has biases and most of operate without realizing it. Take a minute to reflect on this: why do you have a particular color as your favorite one, why do some songs grab your attention immediately while others don’t, why we prefer certain politicians. Ask yourself the whys of every activity. We have a value system (our traditions, likes, dislikes, sense of morality) and we use that to navigate through day-to-day situations.
When we take sides in our head, and in the process, create space for things we don’t like. And threat stems from things we fear or feel anxious about. So, when confront with an idea that does not go well with our value system, we, sometimes, convince ourselves by interpreting information as a threat.
The act of us trying to convince ourselves or diverting our attention away from the threat stimuli is called “vigilance-avoidance.” And this pattern can lead to long-term problems and lead to general anxiety disorder. It says:
Such a ‘vigilance-avoidance’ pattern of cognitive bias is viewed as an attempt to regulate negative emotion that is maladaptive because it may enhance sensitization and interfere with habituation, thereby maintaining anxiety in the long-term
Types of anxiety disorders
The generally accepted types of general disorders are:
The APA defines a panic attack as a “sudden surge of overwhelming fear that comes without warning and without any obvious reason.” It lasts for a short duration but the experience tires you and causes immense stress on the body.
A panic attack causes the body to defend itself even when there is no apparent threat. Some of the symptoms of a panic attack are:
- Sweating and trembling
- A sense of terror (imagine how you would feel when you are confronted with a deadly attack when you least expect it)
- Sudden change in body temperature
- Chest pain and general discomfort in the upper body
Before we delve deeper, we need to understand the concept of fight-or-flight response. When we encounter perceive a threat stimuli, we have two options: to fight it or run away from it. In the case of panic attacks, the body readies itself for a perceived threat, but then it soon realises that there’s no threat. And that, accelerates the rate of panic even further. Out defence systems go on a overdrive, believing it has to defend when there’s no apparent threat.
Panic attacks can occur even in relatively safer environments and during sleep too.
What is Phobia?
A phobia is extreme and irrational fear of specific objects or environment. It is characterized by extreme steps taken by the person to avoid the situation or threat. The fear sometimes derails some of the person’s day-to-day activities. Phobias can be of three types:
Agoraphobia is the fear of open, public spaces, arising out the anxiety, “what if I have a panic attack in a public place?” To avoid such situation, people go to great lengths to avoid them or always go outside with someone to accompany them.
Social phobia: As the name suggests, it is the fear of social environments, where the risk of the person being watched or getting humiliated is higher. It is very common during adolescent years when the need for approval from immediate peers is at its highest.
The most common kind of phobia, specific phobia is the fear of a particular object or environment. Fear of snakes, spiders, loneliness, closed spaces are some the common phobias.
Treating anxiety disorder
Identifying anxiety disorder and giving treatment at the earliest is the best way to tackle the ill-effects. When anxiety becomes overbearing, it can affect the day-to-day activities and in turn other people. The APA recommends immediate treatment for anxiety disorders. It says:
If left untreated, anxiety disorders can have severe consequences. For example, some people who suffer from recurring panic attacks avoid any situation that they fear may trigger an attack. Such avoidance behavior may create problems by conflicting with job requirements, family obligations or other basic activities of daily living
One of the very effective treatments for countering anxiety is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or the talking therapy
CBT cannot help the sufferer by ‘curing’ them but helps by providing techniques, such as relaxation and breathing methods, to deal with it. The therapy is aimed at understanding the deep-seated conflict that manifests as undesirable behaviors. By understanding the flow of thoughts, a therapist will try to identify the ‘blocks’. And while sharing the stress and by confronting the problem, the sufferer gets a sense of relief. And, with time the person can be made to face his/her fears or anxieties and become tolerant of them. Or, in the words of Dorothy Thomas,
Peace is not the absence of conflict, but the ability to cope with it
Medication is provided in cases where it becomes a necessity. Since medication involves altering the chemical reactions inside the body, it’s given only after proper understanding of the problem and a confirmation that such a method is the only way forward to get results. The therapist may also suggest group therapy where people facing similar problems. Every action, activity or interaction that happens in the group is a potentially therapeutic.
Virtual reality to treat anxiety, fear
The advancements in technology has ensured that we can recreate real-life situations and customize them to the needs of the person and help in get used to his fears and anxieties in a gradual manner. This is called exposure therapy. We can fight our fears in a controlled environment and in the process learn to cope with it or get desensitized. This process is gaining popularity among therapists trying to treat people with posttraumatic stress disorder. Here’s a detailed look at how virtual reality can help people cope fear and anxiety.