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What is Anxiety?

What is Anxiety?

Every person feels anxiety on occasion — it is part of life. We all know what it is like to feel worry, nervousness, fear and concern. We may feel nervous when we have to give a speech or go for a job interview or look down from a tall building. Most of us manage these kinds of anxious feelings fairly well and don’t allow them to disrupt our lives.

But many people suffer from devastating and constant anxiety that severely affects and may restrict their lives. They experience panic attacks, phobias, extreme shyness and obsessibe thoughts and compulsive behaviours. The feeling of anxiety is a constant dominating for5ce that disrupts their lives. Some become prisoners in their own homes, unable to leave to work, drive or go to the supermarket. For these people, anxiety is much more than an occasional wave if apprehension.

What is an Anxiety Disorder?

An anxiety disorder affects a person’s thoughts, behaviour, feelings and physical sensations. The most common anxiety disorders include the following:

Panic Disorder
A person with panic disorder has panic attacks without warning. A panic attack is extremely upsetting and frightening. Common panic symptoms include a racing or pounding heart, trembling, sweaty palms, feelings of terror, pain or heaviness in the chest, dizziness and light-headedness, feeling unable to catch one’s breath, tingling in the hands, feet, legs or arms. The person may fear dying, losing control or “going crazy”. A panic attack usually lasts several minutes, but sometimes occurs several times within a short time period. Often, a panic attack is followed by feelings of depression and helplessness. Most people who have experienced a panic attack say that their greatest fear is that the attack will happen again.

A person who has experienced a panic attack often doesn’t know its cause and feels that the attack has come “out of the blue”. Other times, the person may have been under extreme stress or experienced a difficult situation and is not surprised a panic attack occurred.

Social Phobia
People with social phobia or social anxiety fear being around other people. People suffering from it often feel self-conscious around others. They may feel that everyone is staring at them or being critical in some way. Because the anxiety is so painful, people suffering from social phobia often learn to stay away from social situations and avoid other people. Some eventually need to be alone at times, in a room with the door closed. The anxiety is pervasive and constant, and it may even happen with people one knows.

People with social phobia know that their thoughts and fears are irrational. They know that others are not actually judging or evaluating them at every moment, But this knowledge does not make the anxiety disappear.

Generalised Anxiety Disorder
People with Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) find themselves always worrying about something, often thinking and dwelling on the “what ifs” of a situation. They often feel as though there is no way out of the vicious cycle of anxiety and worry and may become depressed about life and the inability to stop worrying.

People with GAD usually don’t avoid situations or experience panic attacks. However, they can become incapacitated by the inability to shut their minds off and are overcome with feelings of worry and dread, a lack of energy and a loss of interest in life. The person usually realises that these feelings are irrational but also knows that they are very real. The person’s mood can change from hour to hour or even day to day. Anxious feelings and mood swings become a pattern that severely disrupts the person’s quality of life.

People with GAD often have physical symptoms such as headaches, irritability, frustration, trembling, difficulty concentrating and sleep disturbances. They may also have symptoms of other anxiety disorders, such as social phobia or panic disorder.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
A person with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) has the same thoughts, images, or impulses (obsessions) over and over again which he or she finds intrusive, senseless and disturbing. The person does not want to have them but feels that he or she has no control over them. Common obsessions include:
  • Thinking about germs and contamination
  • Thinking that one has done harm to another
  • Fearing that one will be harmed
  • Having a need for neatness and order
  • Fearing that one will lose control of oneself
  • Fearing that one will make mistakes
  • Needing things to be a certain way
A person with OCD may also develop compulsions to counteract the obsessions. He or she does certain things over and over again to decrease the anxiety or worry that the obsessions may cause. Compulsions may be physical actions that one repeats. Common compulsions include excessive hand-washing, checking and rechecking locks, repeated arranging of objects and saving or hoarding things. Compulsions can also be mental actions such as counting or silently repeating words. The person performing the compulsions often feels fear, uncertainty and revulsion. He or she feels that the actions must be performed in a specific way to conform to a set of rules.

OCD is a very stressful condition. Performing the obsessions and compulsions can require a lot of time and cause embarrassment. People with OCD often feel as if their brain gets stuck on a certain thought and is unable to let go of it. While most people include pleasant rituals in their lives, such as reading stories at bedtime or lighting candles for religious reasons, the rituals that are part of OCD are anything but pleasant. The worries of becoming contaminated by germs or leaving the house unlocked become extremely stressful and interfere with normal functioning. The obsessions and compulsions are persistent and irrational. When they interfere with a persons everyday living – taking up over an hour each day and interfering with relationships, school or work – its is important that one seeks treatment.

Most people with OCD realise that their obsessions and compulsions are excessive and irrational but feel unable to control them, causing extreme distress in most sufferers of OCD.

Where can I go for more information?

Martha Davis, Matthew McKay and Elizabeth Robbins Eshelman. (2000). The Relaxation & Stress Reduction Workbook. New Harbinger Publications.

Edmund J. Bourne. (2005). The Anxiety & Phobia Workbook. New Harbinger Publications.

Michelle G. Craske and David H. Barlow. (2006). Mastery of Your Anxiety and Worry: Workbook. Oxford University Press, USA.

Anxiety Disorders Support and Information (ADSI)
Ph: 1300 794 992

The Anxiety Network
Website: (GAD, Social Anxiety, Panic)

Anxiety Panic Internet Resource
Website: (Panic Disorder, Agoraphobia, Specific Phobias, Social Anxiety, GAD, OCD, PTSD)

Panic Attacks

David D. Burns. (2007). When Panic Attacks: The New, Drug-Free Anxiety Therapy That Can Change Your Life. Broadway.

David Carbonell. (2004). Panic Attacks Workbook: A Guided Program for Beating the Panic Trick. Ulysses Press.

Generalised Anxiety Disorder

Robert L. Leahy. (2005). The Worry Cure: Seven Steps to Stop Worry from Stopping You. Harmony.

Martha Davis, Matthew McKay and Elizabeth Robbins Eshelman. (2000). The Relaxation & Stress Reduction Workbook. New Harbinger Publications.

Georg H. Eifert and John P. Forsyth. (2005). Acceptance & Commitment Therapy for Anxiety Disorders: A Practitioner's Treatment Guide to Using Mindfulness, Acceptance, And Values-Based Behavior Change Strategies. New Harbinger Publications.


Bruce M. Hyman and Cherry Pedrick. (2005). The OCD Workbook: Your Guide to Breaking Free from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. New Harbinger Publications.

Edna B. Foa and Reid Wilson. (2001). Stop Obsessing!: How to Overcome Your Obsessions and Compulsions. Bantam.

Lee Baer. (2000) Getting Control: Overcoming your obsessions and your compulsions. Plume.

Gail Steketee and Kerrin White. (1990). When Once is Not Enough. New Harbinger Publications

The Obsessive Compulsive Foundation

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Mary Beth Williams and Soili Poijula. (2002). The PTSD Workbook: Simple, Effective Techniques for Overcoming Traumatic Stress Symptoms. New Harbinger Publications.

Aphrodite Matsakis. (1996). I Can't Get over It: A Handbook for Trauma Survivors. New Harbinger Publications.

Glenn R. Schiraldi. (2000). Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Sourcebook. McGraw-Hill.

Judith L. Herman. (1997). Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence — from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror.

Australian Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health
Ph: 03 9496 2922

International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies (ISTSS)

Social Anxiety

Martin M. Antony and Richard P. Swinson. (2000). The Shyness & Social Anxiety Workbook: Proven Techniques for Overcoming Your Fears. New Harbinger Publications.

Gillian Butler. (2001). Overcoming Social Anxiety and Shyness: A Self-Help Guide Using Cognitive Behavioral Techniques. NYU Press.

Ronald Rapee. (2001). Overcoming Shyness and Social Phobia: A Step-by-Step Guide. Aronson.

Janet E. Esposito. (2005). In The SpotLight, Overcome Your Fear of Public Speaking and Performing. In The SpotLight, LLC.

Social Phobia/Social Anxiety Association (SP/SAA)

Social Anxiety Network

Social Anxiety Institute


Edmund J. Bourne. (2005). The Anxiety & Phobia Workbook. New Harbinger Publications.

Martin M. Antony, Michelle G. Craske and David H. Barlow. (2006). Mastering Your Fears and Phobias: Workbook. Oxford University Press, USA.

Martin M. Antony and Mark A., M.D. Watling. (2006). Overcoming Medical Phobias: How to Conquer Fear of Blood, Needles, Doctors, And Dentists. New Harbinger Publications.

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