Anxiety & Panic Disorders

Are you concerned that you, or someone you care about, may be suffering from anxiety?

Many people experience periods of anxiety in their lives when they are under stress, or when going through major changes such as moving home or jobs. For most people they may worry a lot about what may or may not happen, they may feel tense, irritable and reactive, notice their heart beating more than before, and they may feel tired, have difficulty relaxing and/or sleeping, for periods of time, as they struggle to deal with challenging life experiences. Conflictual family situations, work pressures, financial worries and other stressful situations can all contribute to these feelings, which are a normal response for a short period of time.

Many people find that these symptoms of anxiety are transient and disappear after a few days or weeks as worries subside, and life gets back to relative normality.

Anxiety Disorders

For some people these symptoms of anxiety do not disappear after the stressful event has passed. They may continue to feel anxious and worried, sometimes without any specific event triggering the feelings. If these worries, fear about the future, and physical symptoms such as fast heart rate and sweating have become severe enough to interfere with your ability to cope with your daily life you may be developing an anxiety disorder.

Anxiety disorders are a group of conditions that affect the way we think, feel, behave, and which usually present with a range of physical symptoms as well as the thinking, feeling and behavioural symptoms.

Signs and Symptoms of Anxiety Disorders

Below is a list of many of the thinking, feeling, behavioural and physical symptoms of anxiety. Your experience may differ depending on the type and severity of anxiety you are experiencing. Most people will experience a combination of symptoms but an anxiety disorder may still be present without symptoms from all categories.

Thinking and Behavioural Symptoms

  • Worrying about things in a way that is out of proportion with the problem
  • Catastrophic thinking
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Thinking something bad is going to happen
  • Difficulty focusing or concentrating
  • Hypervigilance (being very alert, on the “lookout”)
  • Isolating, withdrawing, avoiding social situations
  • Absent mindedness, forgetful
  • Obsessions – unwanted negative thoughts that get “stuck” in your mind. E.g.:
  • Worry about “germs”
  • Worry about safety issues – is the door locked, appliances turned off?
  • Anticipating a bad event such as the death or loss of someone you care about, accidents, or robbery
  • Compulsions – rituals or behaviours used to help reduce, avoid or manage the anticipated bad event causing the anxiety, which interfere with daily life. E.g.:
  • Washing hands over and over
  • Checking things again and again
  • Arranging things in specific order
  • Continually seeking reassurance, asking questions, checking on friends or family

Feeling Symptoms

  • Constantly feeling worried or apprehensive
  • Feeling fearful, guilty, or agitated at times
  • Feeling shy, or inadequate and afraid at times
  • Feeling irritable and reactive
  • Feeling unsafe or at risk even when all is well
  • Feelings of dread without valid cause
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Intense/sudden feelings of panic or doom.
  • Fear of losing control or going crazy.
  • Feelings of detachment and unreality.

Physical Symptoms

  • Feeling tense and “wound up”
  • Difficulty sleeping or relaxing
  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath or hyperventilation
  • Pounding heart rate or palpitations (sudden awareness of your heart beat, or a fluttering feeling in your chest)
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Sweating
  • Headaches
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Stomach upset or nausea
  • Choking sensations
  • Frequent urination or diarrhea
  • Dizziness or feeling light headed
  • Hot or cold flashes
  • Muscle tension

Types of Anxiety Disorders

Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is characterized by persistent and excessive worry, often about everyday issues such as work, family, health or finances, with associated physical symptoms. Often there is no single problem that is the focus of the worry and so the anxiety is called “generalized.”

Panic Disorder

Panic Disorder is characterized by sudden surges of overwhelming fear that come without warning, in situations where most people would not be afraid. These anxiety or panic “attacks” often only last a few minutes, but can be extremely distressing. A “panic attack” is accompanied by severe and overwhelming symptoms such that the person feels as though their life is in danger. When this experience is repeated some people begin to develop a fear of being “triggered” into a panic or anxiety attack and may develop avoidance behaviours that begin to impact their relationships, work and family life.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

In Obsessive Compulsive Disorder anxiety becomes characterised by obsession and compulsion. The obsession refers to the way you think and the compulsion refers to the way you behave.

In OCD a person experiences persistent thoughts, ideas, impulses or images that cause significant anxiety and distress. These thoughts can relate to specific fears such as “germs” or fear of loss of, or harm to, themself, other people or things. In an effort to manage these intrusive thoughts and ideas the person will often perform certain rituals or behaviours, called compulsions, over and over again, trying to reduce the anxiety or ease the fear. These compulsions can take over a person's life, becoming so severe that their quality of life deteriorates. People who struggle with OCD usually know that their obsessions and compulsions are problematic and not in the normal range of human behaviour, but are unable to stop.

Social Anxiety Disorder

Social Anxiety Disorder is characterised by persistent fear of social situations, or performance demands. The person is hypersensitive to being in the presence of other people, and has severe anxiety about being judged, criticized or negatively evaluated by others. They may fear social occasions, talking to other people, eating in front of others or public speaking. These fears lead to avoidance behaviours, isolation and negatively impacts relationships, work and family life.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder can develop after exposure to a frightening, overwhelming and traumatic event(s). The PTSD symptoms (re-experiencing the event, avoidance, emotional numbing, and hyper-arousal) are common after traumatic experiences, especially interpersonal events (such as being the victim of sexual or physical violence), car accidents and disabling injury. For many people these symptoms decrease and disappear over time, but for some people the disorder develops as the symptoms persist and begin to interfere with their ability to cope with aspects of their daily lives. There are a range of presentation and symptoms of PTSD, and more information is available on our website.

Specific phobia. People with a specific phobia experience extreme anxiety and fear if exposed to a particular feared object or situation. Common phobias include fear of flying, spiders and other animals, heights or small spaces.

Episodes of anxiety can be related to other problems, which need to be diagnosed and treated at the same time to prevent relapse, such as depression, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and addictions.

Causes of Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety Disorders generally have many contributing factors, which may include:

  • Genetics and biochemical imbalance
    There is research evidence that a genetic predisposition to anxiety runs in families, though this is not enough to cause the development of an anxiety disorder alone. It does put people at greater risk for developing anxiety disorders if they were to experience challenging life events.

    Disordered neurochemistry means that the chemicals in the brain that regulate our feelings and physical reactions can be underperforming or lacking, in some types of anxiety. Some types of medication can improve the symptoms of anxiety very effectively if this is a key cause.

  • Life experiences, trauma and stress
    Some life experiences that are stressful or traumatic, such as family break ups, ongoing bullying or conflict at home, school or work, abuse, or traumatic events such as car accidents can make people more susceptible to anxiety. These extra stress factors may be more than a person’s normal coping mechanisms can cope with comfortably, and may leave them vulnerable to experiencing anxiety.
  • Personality, thinking styles, and behavioural factors
    People with low self-esteem, who suffer with shyness and who are perfectionistic are more at risk of developing high levels of anxiety. People who are avoidant may not develop ways of coping with stressful situations, which may contribute to the development, and exacerbation, of anxiety.

Anxiety Disorder Realities

Recovery from an anxiety disorder is likely to be more successful when underlying causes and environmental factors are addressed at the same time as the presenting symptoms and problems are treated.

If you would like to speak to someone who understands the challenges of living with an Anxiety Disorder, and who can discuss the your particular situation and treatment needs, we suggest that you call our assessment team who will offer a free and confidential preliminary chat, or full assessment if that is your preference.

Take the first step into treatment by phoning or emailing our assessment team on 1800 063 332.

Do you need support right now?

People suffering with anxiety often have difficulty recognizing that they need help, or reaching out for the help they need. If you are feeling overwhelmed, fearful, hopeless, despairing or having thoughts of suicide and need immediate help, we recommend you contact your doctor, local hospital, local mental health service, mental health professionals or Lifeline. Lifeline 131114