One of the Friday Reflections prompts for this week is to write about anxiety. How does it affect me and what do I do to cope? I will write here about my experiences with various types of anxiety. It ties in nicely with last Monday’s post, in which I share tips for relaxation. However, throughout this post, I will share some coping strategies that have and haven’t worked for me too.
In the psychiatrist’s manual, DSM-5, there are various types of anxiety disorders. Now I don’t have a diagnosis of any of these disorders, but they are a good reference point for the various types of anxiety that people may experience.
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is a condition in which a person feels anxious or worried about a variety of situations. This worry is accompanied by a feeling of restlessness, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, irritability, sleep disturbance and/or muscle tension. Generalized anxiety disorder often co-occurs with depression.
Though I haven’t had a diagnosis of GAD, partly because my owrrying can be explained by my autism, I have been a chronic worrier all my life and experienced many of the associated symptoms I mentioned above. Antidepressants can help this type of anxiety and in fact are more effective for GAD than for depression. I have been taking the antidepressant Celexa since 2010 with moderate success.
Some people worry about specific things happening to them. For example, I have a lot of anxiety about getting a serious illness. This is called hypochondria or health anxiety. In the psychiatrist’s manual, it is classified as a somatic symptom disorder rather than an anxiety disorder, but the symptoms overlap with those of anxiety disorders. Some doctors have tried antidepressants for health anxiety and documented significant improvement in their patients. It is also commonly thought that people’s health anxiety lessens, ironically, when they do get seriously ill.
My health anxiety is associated with compulsive behaviors. For example, when I was a child, I was afraid of contracting leprosy. As a means of keeping my worry at bay, I’d count my fingers and toes, since I heard that people who had leprosy had those fall off.
Later on, when I lived independently, obsessive worrying and the resulting compulsive behaviors extended to other situations. For example, I’d be afraid of carbon monoxide poisoning and would have to check that my heating was off and windows open at night. I often checked this twenty or thirty times a night.
Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is classified in DSM-5 under its own category separate from anxiety disorders. The obsessive compulsive spectrum also includes disorders that aren’t commonly seen as anxiety disorders, such as hoardng and trichotillomania (compulsive hair pulling). However, OCD used to be seen as an anxiety disorder. Antidepressants can help, but so can exposure and response prevention. In this type of psychotherapy, the patient is gradually taught to lessen the compulsive response (eg. checking) to a feared scenario. For example, people who have hygiene-related compulsions gradually move from say a three-hour shower down to normal shower time, decreasing their time under the shower by one minute a day. For me personally, my obsessions and compulsions related to the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning decreased dramatically when I was hospitalized.
Another type of anxiety disorder is specific phobia. Everyone probably has something they are fearful of, but a specific phobia is only diagnosed when the fear and resulting avoidance of situations greatly impairs the person’s daily functioning. Similar to OCD, specific phobias are treated with exposure therapy, where the person is gradually intrduced to the feared situation or object and learns to endure the fear. For example, a person with a spider phobia might be first intrduced to pictures of spiders, then videos, then look at a live spider, etc. You can also be asked to simply imagine the feared scenario (eg. looking at a spider). After all, with certain phobias, it is not feasible for the therapist to take the client on to the real experience.
A final type of anxiety is social phobia. A person with social phobia is extremely fearful of social situations because of the fear of making mistakes or being criticized. As a result, people with social phobia avoid certain or all social situations. Many autistic people develop social anxiety as a result of their real social ineptness. I for one do not consider myself that socially anxious, but when I filled out a social phobia questionnaire online, it said I had very sevre social phobia. This is probably because I get overwhelmd by social situations easily and avoid them because of this.
People with social phobia, often children, may also suffer from a co-existing condition called selective mutism. This is an inability to talk in certain situations (eg. at school) while the child has adequate speech in other situations (eg. with parents). I displayed signs of selective mutism as a teen. Though this was in part anxiety-related, it also related to my autism.
There are still many other types of anxiety and related disorders, such as panic disorder and agoraphobia. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) also used to be classified as an anxiety disorder. I used to have a diagnosis of PTSD and still have some of its symptoms, but I may discuss this at a later time.