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The different types of anxiety and their symptoms

This article does not contain medical or health advice. The information contained in this article is provided for general information and educational purposes only and should not be construed as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment - full disclaimer here.

a woman sitting down with her head in her hands

What is anxiety?

It is normal to feel anxious about things, all sorts of things. It could be a driving test, a job interview, a first date or maybe making a presentation. You'll probably get a fluttery stomach, a rapid heart beat, your digestion may go into overdrive meaning frequent trips to the toilet, you might not be able to concentrate and you may be a bit clammy and jittery. All this is completely normal and part of our built in response to fear or apprehension of what is to come.

The good thing is that once whatever you were feeling anxious about has passed your body returns to normal and you can often feel a massive sense of elation afterwards (passing that driving test, being offered the job or nailing that presentation). This is a normal and healthy response to everyday life and not something to be worried about.

Things that help with anxious or stressful times in everyday life are tools like deep breathing, distraction (reading, watching a film, listening to music or podcasts or talking about something completely different) and exercise of some sort, and it doesn't have to be strenuous.

How do I know if I have anxiety?

Anxiety starts to be a problem when these feelings become so frequent that they become a part of everyday life, but for no particular reason. There is no exam or interview or other stressful event but you still get the feelings and symptoms as if there were.

Things can progress further with symptoms becoming more exaggerated until full blown panic attacks can start (although some people have full blown panic attacks that just come on out of the blue without the previous anxiety symptoms, it's a very personal response). What you need to remember to distinguish between everyday life anxiety (which is normal and healthy) and an anxiety condition, is that anxiety conditions and panic attacks are unexpected or unusual reactions to normal life and everyday situations.

If the anxiety condition starts to progress you can get all sorts of weird symptoms in the mind and body and people experience different symptoms although some are more common than others. This is worrying in itself with sufferers thinking that there is something seriously medically wrong with them which then just adds to their anxiety. It's a never ending cycle which can lead to all sorts of other issues such as alcohol or drug dependence and depression as people try to cope and make sense of what is happening to them.

What are the different types of anxiety and their symptoms?

There are 5 main types of anxiety:

1 GAD (Generalised Anxiety Disorder)

GAD is when the body is constantly operating as if it were on a high level of alert. There is an excessive degree of continual anxiety and added to this there will probably be a huge list of emotions (wondering what is happening, feeling unable to cope, thinking you are going mad) and symptoms and sensations in the body which can make you feel as if there is definitely something wrong with you, an illness of some sort.

You may also feel depressed - hardly surprising! There are so many symptoms that you can get with GAD but there will usually be quite a few of the following:

Symptoms of GAD

  1. rapid heartbeat and/or heart palpitations

  2. feelings as if the heart misses a beat

  3. chest pain

  4. sweating

  5. shaking or being jittery

  6. a clammy feeling

  7. feeling full quickly when you eat and then rapid emptying of the stomach (diarrhea)

  8. a feeling as if you have something in your throat and you can't swallow properly

  9. a continual or persistent intermittent eye twitch

  10. pain in the jaw, face or neck

  11. numbness of the face or neck

  12. a weak feeling in the arms and legs, maybe find it hard to stand or walk

  13. a feeling like an electric shock that goes through a part of the body or the skin

  14. a dry mouth

  15. dry or sore eyes

  16. trouble in getting to sleep (insomnia)

  17. waking early or in the middle of the night for no reason

  18. fear that you are seriously ill

  19. feeling like you are losing control or going mad

  20. problems with your hearing

  21. issues with your eyesight

  22. headaches

2 Panic Attacks

The difference between GAD and a panic attack is that GAD rumbles along in the background all the time, some days are better than others but it is always there at a low level. Panic attacks come on suddenly, you could be anywhere doing anything and suddenly they start.

Some panic attacks can be caused by the sufferer being in a certain situation. For instance someone may have a panic attack at the supermarket. From then on they may be afraid to go to the supermarket in case they have a panic attack. They are not afraid of the supermarket but their mind has firmly cemented in place a memory of fear about something unpleasant that has happened there before and they feel that if they go back there, the same thing will happen again.

Some panic attacks are spontaneous and pop up for no reason usually when you are quite happily doing something else and are fairly relaxed. Personally I think these are the worst because they can even happen whilst you are asleep, throwing you awake where your immediate reaction is to panic even more at what is happening to you. Your heart is racing or seems to be missing beats, you can't breathe properly and swallowing can feel like you are choking.

The symptoms for panic attacks are the same or similar to GAD but are much more intense however the attacks usually don't last very long (although it can feel like a lot longer when you are having an attack) Panic attacks can be absolutely terrifying, especially the first time they happen and sufferers often feel like they are having a heart attack.

As well as more intense versions of the symptoms of GAD there may be extra symptoms with a panic attack such as:

Symptoms of a panic attack

  1. a choking sensation

  2. feelings of being unable to breathe properly

  3. feeling dizzy or a bit wobbly on your feet

  4. feeling sick

  5. partial loss of hearing

  6. profuse sweating or chills

3 OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder)

People may wonder why OCD is on an anxiety list as they see it as a stand alone condition. Think about it for a moment though, OCD would never occur without an underlying anxiety condition. It is driven by the anxiety process with the OCD symptoms simply being the top level manifestations of the anxiety that the sufferer is feeling.

Symptoms of OCD

The symptoms of OCD are many and varied and are usually to do with control and rituals such as:

  1. extreme frequency in the washing of hands

  2. continual checking of things (is the iron off, window open, door locked, tap turned off) even though they have already checked.

  3. wanting things in perfect order for instance continually cleaning, lining things up in a certain way (ornaments or clothes in cupboards), counting things (steps, seconds doing something, sweets in a packet).

There are many other forms that OCD can take but the obsessive repetition of actions or rituals can dominate everyday living for a sufferer.

4 PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder)

Some anxiety conditions or panic attacks can be specific, for instance they can be brought on by certain places or situations and can often be as a result of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder).

I had these when I had to go to any form of medical setting. This started because of experiences I had in hospital when I was extremely ill. My mind became conditioned to associate medical settings with intense fear and switched me into full blown panic attacks if I even got a whiff of antiseptic or something similar.

This was also embarrassing and only enhanced the perceived fear I had - a vicious cycle. Initially it was when I was about to enter a medical setting but it got so bad that it started happening even when I thought about attending an appointment that I had coming up.

These types of attacks can occur when you have either been involved in or witnessed something life threatening or distressing.

5 Phobias

Some people have a fear of things such as socialising where there are large groups of people, speaking in meetings, being photographed - all sorts of things that could possibly lead, in their minds, to some form of embarrassment in a public or social setting.

This is known as a 'social phobia'. Symptoms can range from the ones listed under GAD to full blown panic attacks and certain phobias may stop people from living normal lives by preventing them from doing certain activities because of their anxiety.

There are also those who are fearful of things like spiders, lightening, snakes or small spaces and this is called a 'specific phobia'. Mostly people with specific phobias don't have any undue anxiety issues in their normal everyday life, only when they are confronted with their specific 'fear'. The symptoms can range from anything under the GAD list to the extreme version of the panic attack, but once the source of their fear disappears, so do their symptoms.

What causes anxiety?

Anxiety conditions develop when the brain learns something new. Our brains do this all the time for instance when taking up a new hobby or sport or learning to drive. They do this by restructuring parts of the brain called neural pathways to have different responses to certain situations or events and this can have a positive effect - suddenly we learn to drive or play tennis quite well!

Our brain can also do this for different reasons that it picks up from our experiences and emotions and this can lead to the development of anxiety and phobias. Same type of processing in the brain but in this case leading to us having different or unusual reactions to otherwise normal situations.

So life experiences and emotions can, subconsciously, allow the brain to form new types of behaviour, responses and actions to situations and then an anxiety disorder may be formed.

If you are suffering from anxiety or panic attacks I know just how debilitating they can be and how much of your life and personality they can suck away. I've written a detailed article on the many Natural Ways t Treat Anxiety without taking medication. You'd be surprised at how many options there are for you to try and just how effective they can be,

In the meantime if, after reading the above, you are concerned about either yourself or a loved one then visit this NHS Information Page on Mental Health which gives details of urgent mental health help lines as well as details on how to access therapy and counselling services. You can also find details on local mental health charities who may also be able to help.

There are many options available to treat anxiety and stress so please do not suffer in silence.

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