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A psychologist explains the five main types of anxiety

Shona Hendley discovers why we shouldn’t paint all sufferers with the same anxiety brush.

I once shared with a colleague that I suffer from anxiety. “But you don’t look like an anxious person,” she replied.

When I asked her what she meant, she said, “Well you talk to lots of people and you aren’t very jittery.”

While I tried my best to not let my inner WTF reflect via my facial expression, I also realised that despite the prevalence of anxiety in society, it is astonishing how little some people actually understand about it.

Beyond Blue says it is the most common mental health condition in Australia, with more than two million people experiencing a type of anxiety in any one year. But the condition is often generalised by some as a series of symptoms like trembling hands, a heart beating as fast as Cathy Freeman after winning the 400m at the Olympics, or a recluse hiding away from everyone and avoiding social interaction at all costs.

In reality, anxiety is far from the same for all, or even any of its sufferers. According to clinical psychologist Meredith Fuller, there are five main types of anxiety disorders, all of which have major differentiation between them from their respective symptoms, causes, and treatment. They include generalised anxiety, specific phobias, social anxiety, panic disorder, and agoraphobia – which can manifest due to very different reasons and triggers.

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Generalised anxiety

Generalised anxiety is “free-floating anxiety. It pervades everything all the time because you don’t know what you’re anxious about,” she says.

The condition that can impact one, or all areas of your life can often make you feel restless or on edge, irritable, cause difficulty concentrating and/or sleeping, and muscle tension.

Fuller says “it becomes an issue when it is impacting on your lifestyle” which is when treatment should be sought. This can range from the more immediate like deep breathing to seeking the support of a psychologist for strategies to help you overcome the anxiety.

Specific phobias

“A specific phobia is an intense fear and anxiety caused by a specific trigger like spiders, flying, or heights. These can become an issue when they are impacting what you are doing or what you are not doing,” Fuller says.

Treating specific phobias is best done with the support of a professional who can provide a number of techniques and strategies including a desensitising process, which gradually allows the patient to become more comfortable with the source of their phobia.

Social anxiety/phobia

Social anxiety or phobia is “anxiety which is heightened with the idea of leaving the home, or the office, or the place where you feel safe because there is an underlying fear of having to interact with other people,” Fuller explains.

Often this anxiety is rooted in the individual being “afraid of being shamed, judged, or a fear that something terrible will happen.”

“They are often unsure of what to do or what to say in social situations and therefore have an anxiety around this, a fear of the unknown.”

But fortunately, this anxiety can often be treated effectively in a handful of sessions.

“The treatment often involves small and incremental steps based around ideas of sense of self and self-esteem, as well as techniques to help with interpersonal relationships,” Fuller explains.

Panic Disorder

One of the scariest phobias to experience is panic disorder, which Fuller describes as a sensation that feels “like you might be dying.”

This anxiety has a particularly strong physiological response in the body, often characterised by sufferers as feeling like they are having a heart attack.

“There is actual physical pain, sweating, shaking, it’s an overwhelming physical experience” often initiated by a trigger, or extreme stressor which causes this response in the person suffering the panic attack.

According to Fuller, the best thing you can do as an immediate response to help is to use “deep breathing to assist with self-regulation and it also provides oxygen to the brain.”

Agoraphobia

Agoraphobia is different from social anxiety as it isn’t a fear of interacting with other people but instead a feeling that it is so unsafe outside of your home that you feel in complete threat about leaving the house.

“As soon as you go outside the house you feel overwhelmed with terror and fear and often experience intense physical symptoms like dizziness,” Fuller explains.

Those who suffer from agoraphobia will often need the support of an expert like a psychologist to assist them with the issue.

Other anxiety types

In addition to these main five anxiety types, there are also other sorts of anxiety including Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Post Traumatic Disorder, which are less common.

A simple coping technique

Although each type of anxiety is treated differently, one technique that is often the most effective strategy for all of them is deep breathing.

“It is free, it is easy, and its effects are immediate,” Fuller says. But ensuring you get longer-term help is also vital.

“What is important to remember is if it is impacting your lifestyle it is time to get help from an expert like a psychologist or psychiatrist who can assist with a range of techniques from breathing and relaxation to cognitive therapy, or even medication which can provide immediate, short term or longer-term assistance.”

Mental health professionals are available 24/7 at the beyondblue Support Service – 1300 22 46 36 or via beyondblue.org.au/get-support for online chat (3pm-12am AEST) or email response.