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Basic concepts: Anxiety, Fear, and Anxiety Disorders

Updated: Oct 16, 2022

Struggling with anxiety often feels like a very personal experience. The reality, however, is that it is not at all uncommon. In fact, just about everyone experiences anxiety in their lifetime, and about 1 in every 4-5 people struggle with significant difficulties that are ongoing and debilitating, due to anxiety; there lies the difference between experiencing the normal, essential sense of anxiety versus developing an anxiety disorder. But first, let’s recognise the difference between two basic and similar emotions – Fear and Anxiety.

Fear Vs Anxiety

The experience of anxiety is very similar to the experience of fear - the main difference is that anxiety occurs in the absence of real danger. That is, the individual may think that they are in danger but the reality is that they are not. For example, think of the anxiety one may feel when walking down a poorly lit alley. The individual may feel anxious because they perceive some potential danger, whether that's true or not.

Now, you may argue that recognising between fear and anxiety is of a negligible difference and an almost petty point to make; however, when anxiety is confused with fear, which is to say that we feel anxious about something that MAY happen - and interpret it as fear - as if the thing is happening in itself, it can be quite consequential. This is, in a nutshell, how anxiety disorders develop and people start losing their independence in the name of self-preservation. For more about this process, please read the blog entry about OCD.

Anxiety VS Anxiety Disorder

Anxiety, as an emotion, is not only normal, it is downright crucial. Consider a parallel experience at the physical level: the feeling of pain. Of course, it’s upsetting and uncomfortable to be in pain, but if we hadn’t developed the ability to sense pain we could all be in danger of injuring ourselves and not realising, being ill and not caring for ourselves and eventually putting ourselves in far greater risks. From birth, we all feel the pain that signals discomfort, the need to address a physical need etc. Anxiety works in a similar way: it is an emotional alarm system that signals that something is either currently wrong, or is about to be. Consider not feeling alert before an exam, an interview or going on a first date. It is the anxiety that drives us to prepare for the occasion, to put us in a better, safer position to enable us to raise to the challenge.

However, it’s when anxiety is getting out of hand and starts to impact our everyday lives in maladaptive and dysfunctional ways that we may start to consider it as an Anxiety Disorder. Indeed, there could be different ways anxiety can grow and manifest – hence the variety of different anxiety disorders (see the home page for the list of anxiety disorders I offer treatment for).

If you ever really struggled with anxiety, you probably know how overwhelming it can be. Many people that experience the physical and emotional symptoms of anxiety wonder if anything is seriously wrong with them. Moreover, the feedback from other people is often less than supportive (‘just get yourself together') and is not very helpful.

So what can we do about it?

Anxiety disorders can effect any kind of person at any stage of their life, whether they are an introvert or an extrovert, socially active or shy, youthful or elderly, male or female, wealthy or poor. Whatever your distinction, you can struggle with anxiety disorders. That means that any person you know is also fair game. So remember, you are not alone. Feeling afraid is very much a part of the experience of being human, and indeed it is part of the ancient instinct, which we share with every other organism, of survival.

Indeed, anxiety disorders are very difficult to tackle on your own; however, the good news is that treatment is available. In numerous clinical studies Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) has been demonstrated to be an effective and efficient approach, both compared to other psychological therapies, as well as to psychiatric medication.

To learn more about the CBT approach, please see the blog article focusing on CBT.

What Causes Anxiety Disorders?

Naturally, the combination of factors which result in an individual developing an anxiety disorder differs from person to person. However, the latest research suggests there are some major factors that can contribute to the development of anxiety disorders. These factors can be effectively divided into biological and psychological causes.

Biological Factors may include genetic origins, which had been linked to the development of anxiety disorders. For example, in obsessive-compulsive disorder, about 20% of first-degree relatives have also suffered from the condition. Overall, based on family studies, it has been suggested that individuals may inherit a vulnerability to developing an anxiety disorder. Having this genetic vulnerability does not imply that those individuals will develop an anxiety disorder, which leads us to review the Psychological factors.

Psychological Factors relate to personal or social circumstances that may play a role for an individual in developing anxiety disorders. A great deal depends on the lifestyle of that person, the types of life stressors they have encountered and their early learning. For example, if we learned or were taught to fear or avoid certain situations since young childhood, it can become difficult to extinguish these learned patterns of behaviour.


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