Different types of anxiety disorders

Social anxiety, phobias, panic disorders - what's the difference? Bupa's Clinical Director of Mental Health Pablo Vandenabeele looks at the different types of anxiety disorders. 

Everyone experiences anxiety occasionally – maybe you have an important exam coming up or you are feeling under pressure at work. But for someone with an anxiety disorder, feelings of anxiety, worry and fear are persistent and can interfere with daily activities.

Anxiety disorders are common mental health disorders, so you certainly aren’t alone if you struggle with anxiety or have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. There are several different types of anxiety disorders. Here, I briefly explain some of them and how they differ.

Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD)

Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) is characterised by long-term, excessive worry; not particularly about just one thing happening in your life, but many things. Although symptoms vary greatly, you may feel irritable, tired and have tense muscles. You might feel nervous, lightheaded or dizzy, or have trouble concentrating or sleeping at night. For GAD to be diagnosed, you typically would have symptoms for at least six months. However, there is a broad range of symptoms and what you may experience is likely to be different from someone else’s symptoms.

Phobias

If you have a phobia, you have an intense fear of something that’s not actually dangerous (or very unlikely to be dangerous). It’s usually only when you’re in that situation, or near the object that you have a phobia of (the trigger), that you get anxiety symptoms. The nearer you get to the trigger, the more anxious you become – and so you tend to avoid it. If your phobia is severe, even thinking about the object of your phobia can trigger symptoms such as feeling dizzy, sweating, being short of breath or shaking.

You may have a specific phobia of something, such as flying, certain animals, water or going to the dentist. Or your phobia may be more complex, such as agoraphobia. Agoraphobia is a fear of going where there are other people and not being able to ‘escape’ easily, which can stop you from leaving your home.

Social anxiety disorder 

Social anxiety disorder (also known as social phobia) is when you have persistent fear or anxiety about social situations that involve interaction or performance. 

You may:
  • feel very anxious about being around other people and having to talk to them
  • feel very self-conscious in front of other people and worried about feeling humiliated, embarrassed or rejected
  • be afraid that people will judge you
  • worry for a long while before a social event
  • stay away from places where there will be other people
  • blush, sweat or tremble around other people
dark skinned male looking out window

Panic disorder

If you have panic disorder, you have recurrent, unexpected panic attacks. Panic attacks are sudden periods of intense fear. There are many symptoms of a panic attack – people can have quite different experiences. However, commonly during an attack, you may:

  • have a rapid heart rate
  • sweat, tremble or shake
  • feel short of breath or feel like you’re choking
  • have a sense of impending doom

If you have a panic disorder you may:

  • feel out of control during a panic attack
  • worry about when the next attack may happen
  • avoid places where you may have had panic attacks in the past
  • fear you will die during a panic attack

Some anxiety disorders are related. For example, you may also have a panic disorder if you have a certain phobia, for example, agoraphobia.

Getting the right help and support

I haven’t gone into the treatments of these anxiety disorders, as there are many different medicines, therapies and techniques available to help manage them. What’s important is that you recognise if you have an anxiety disorder and visit your GP. Anxiety disorders can be treated and you can overcome them. Your GP will be able to talk to you about your symptoms and discuss what treatments are available, depending on your individual circumstances and preferences.

If you'd like to know more about anxiety, or mental health, visit here for additional Blue Room resources.
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