While many people talk of having anxiety, anxiety disorders are actually a group of disorders that are characterized by excessive fear, anxiety, and behaviours related to this fear and anxiety.
Since fear and anxiety are defining characteristics of anxiety disorders, let’s take a closer look.
Fear is an emotion. It is a reaction to a real or perceived real-time or current threat. Anxiety on the other hand is anticipation of a future event. They overlap, but also differ.
Fear generally involves the familiar fight, flight, or freeze response. This is a natural, automatic physical response that happens when we feel threatened. Our hearts beat faster, our muscles tense, our eyes dilate, we breathe faster or deeper - all so we can run faster, see better, and breath easier whenever we are faced with real or imagined threats. Once the fear passes, everything relaxes and returns to normal.
Anxiety has more to do with muscle tension and cautious or avoidant behaviours in preparation for future danger. When we think of a feared upcoming event or situation, our thoughts, body, and actions are all involved. Our thoughts revolve around feared event – worrying about what will happen or what others will think. Our body tenses. We may feel nauseous, shaky, or weak. In order to get rid of these thoughts and body sensations, we behave in ways that will help us avoid or minimize whatever it is that makes us feel this way.
If as we’ve said, anxiety and fear are natural reactions to real or perceived, current or future threats, what’s the problem? The problem is when they are out of proportion to the event or situation and when they are ongoing (typically lasting six months or more). In other words, people with anxiety disorders generally overestimate the danger in certain situations. They then fear and avoid those situations to the point where it interferes with their everyday lives.
While the anxiety disorders are related and can occur together, they differ from each other by the types and situations that are avoided, as well as by the thoughts that go along with them.
You can read more about Social Anxiety here. We will examine other anxiety disorders in upcoming blogs.