An anxiety state becomes an anxiety disorder when the individual adds an interpretation of danger and responds accordingly. Individuals with anxiety disorders believe their catastrophic thoughts and attempt to problem solve or avoid their thoughts, feelings, and sensations.
Although there are other characteristics of each disorder, one way to think about the specific anxiety disorders is by understanding what the individual misinterprets as dangerous.
Panic disorder – Fear of sensations and avoidance of external or internal stimuli that may trigger those sensations
Generalized anxiety disorder – Fear of thoughts; hypersensitivity to uncertainty; problematic beliefs about the utility of worry
Obsessive compulsive disorder – Fear of thoughts; hypersensitivity to uncertainty, guilt, and disgust
Social anxiety disorder – Fear of sensations and thoughts; fear of positive evaluation and negative evaluation due to hypersensitivity to the possibility of rejection and perceived judgment
Sensitivity to anxious sensations occurs in all of the anxiety disorders. This trait is called anxiety sensitivity and it is a biological predisposition that runs in families and is passed down through social interactions.
The fight-or-flight response is inherently neutral; it isn’t good or bad. It’s just happening. A performer who frames the way that his heart races before going on stage as excitement is experiencing his fight-or-flight response positively. He will not complain of having an anxiety problem nor will he experience the other problems that occur during the struggle against anxiety.
If you have anxiety sensitivity, you experience your fight-or-flight response as uncomfortable and potentially dangerous. You were likely born sensitive to being over-stimulated. You were likely socialized to fear and try to control your thoughts and sensations, because adults told you “calm down,” “don’t worry,” “don’t think like that,” and “you don’t need to feel like that.” In addition to telling you to control what you think and feel, you likely watched adults express worry when they felt uncertain and avoid when they felt anxious.
Everyone with an anxiety disorder also focuses on the future too much. Having goals and plans is an important part of achieving your potential. If you have an anxiety disorder, you spend a lot of your time thinking and worrying about the future, in an effort to manage your intolerance of uncertainty, to the detriment of the present moment.
Worry and unwanted intrusive thoughts can occur in all of the anxiety disorders. Hypersensitivity to uncomfortable feelings like uncertainty, guilt, disgust, rejection, disappointment, and shame are all common across the anxiety spectrum. Insurance companies may be concerned with the exact diagnostic criteria of a specific anxiety disorder. We believe it is more helpful for your long-term relief to have an underlying understanding of the patterns of thoughts and behaviors that all the anxiety disorders have in common and how you can respond differently, regardless of the content of the fear.