We see many clients with anxiety - not surprising when you realise that around 14% of Aussies will experience an anxiety disorder each year. We're often asked: “What’s the difference between anxiety, worry and fear?”,“When is anxiety a disorder and not just a normal part of life?”, “What causes anxiety?” and “What’s the best treatment” We’ll answer each of these briefly and hope you can come away able to help us spread more accurate and helpful info about anxiety in our community.
Firstly, there are different types of anxiety disorders, the main ones being:
Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Panic Disorder, Social Phobia (or Social Anxiety Disorder), Separation Anxiety Disorder, Agoraphobia, Selective Mutism and Specific Phobias. Note: OCD and PTSD also involve anxiety but they are not considered anxiety disorders as such.
“What’s the difference between anxiety, worry and fear?”
In most situations, those words are used interchangeably but in mental health land, we differentiate them in terms of intensity and focus.
Fear is what we all experience when faced with an actual threat. If you’re walking through the bush and a snake slithers across your path you might experience a moment of fear. Until you realise it’s just going about it’s business and not interested in you at all!
Anxiety is ongoing hypervigilance that has you scared about the possibility of encountering a snake even before you go for a walk. In fact, you probably wouldn’t go for a walk. Just in case. And if you did, you might be freaked out by rustling noises in the bush and the sight of long sticks.
Worry is like Anxiety Lite. It’s persistent and it makes you more vigilant, but it doesn’t cause as much distress or avoidance. You might be a bit concerned about going for a walk in case you come across a snake, but you go anyway. And you can enjoy it without jumping each time you hear rustling.
“When is anxiety a ‘disorder’ and not just a normal part of life?”
Regardless of the type of anxiety disorder, one of the things mental health practitioners are looking at in determining if a person is anxious vs has an anxiety disorder is, “How does it affect this person’s functioning?” When anxiety is getting in the way of you doing your work, your socialising, your ability to take care of yourself, or the things that are part of your everyday life, it is more likely to be a disorder than just worry.
We also look at levels of distress, how long it has been present, and what symptoms are occurring. The different anxiety disorders share many of the same feature: avoidance, consistent fear of that particular thing/situation across different settings, and a fear that is out of proportion to the actual threat.
And why does it matter if it’s a disorder or not? It probably matters if
(a) you need a formal diagnosis for the purposes of medication, or accessing support or accommodations
(b) if it helps you, or those around you, be more compassionate or accommodating about your struggles
(c) if it is interfering with your functioning and mood and you’re more likely to take it seriously if you know you’re in the ‘disorder’ category
“What causes anxiety?
Survival. Our need to survive has created amazing brain networks and activity that help us detect threats, avoid them, and protect ourselves when they pop up. Quite important, right?! However, disordered anxiety is a overkill or a ‘false alarm’. It has gone beyond helpful vigilance and reaction into hypervigilance and overreaction.
In a nutshell, parts of our brain are constantly looking out for threat. If something pops up that’s on our threat list, and this is different for each of us (with the exception of common fears like the earth rumbling, explosive sounds or predator noises), we are almost instantly prepped for running away, fighting, or freezing. Our body and brain work together with impressive speed and coordination to keep us safe.
Unfortunately, with anxiety problems, even when there is no actual danger we are left with the unpleasant emotional, physical and cognitive experience of survival mode. It feels awful and often quite unsafe all by itself. For panic disorder, the physical symptoms of panic actually become the thing that the person is afraid of. It’s a vicious circle.
“What’s the best treatment”
Practitioners use a variety of evidence-based approaches to treat anxiety including:
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (which includes exposure therapy)
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy
Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy
Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction
There’s also some new, and promising, work being done using virtual reality exposure therapy and computer-based exposure.
The type of treatment approach is important but, as you can see, there’s a variety to choose from. Ultimately, it’s a good idea to read up on them to see what sits best with you. If you have a clear preference, you can read the profile of our practitioners on our website or call and speak to our admin team to see who uses that particular approach.
In addition to the treatment method, other factors will play a big role in your recovery. For instance, the number of sessions is key. Research shows that around half of us will need more than 12 sessions (some research says more than 20) in order to make significant improvements. This is especially likely to be the case for situations that are more severe or long standing. The rapport you develop with your therapist is also key and we’re proud to say our practitioners excel at building relationships with their clients.
Maybe your question now is, “What’s the next step in sorting out my anxiety?!” Well, there’s a ton of information on the internet, on Youtube, in your local library, and on podcasts. Some of it is excellent. Some of it is, well, questionable! You might benefit tremendously from some self-led psycho-education and you might also need to get some professional help. Your GP would be a great place to start in figuring this out and you’re welcome to make an appointment to speak with one of our practitioners (you don’t need a GP referral unless you’re seeking a Medicare rebate).
Whatever you do next, remember that anxiety is common, treatment can help, and it’s your body overdoing its ‘don’t get hurt’ routine.