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Author – Susan Sluiter (M.A. RAU) – Clinical Psychologist, Trainer and Author



What is an anxiety disorder and how do I know I have it?


What is anxiety?

Anxiety is an emotion categorized by inner turmoil, epitomized by specific physiological sensations and nervous behaviour. It is normal for any person to feel a certain degree of anxiety in certain situations such as before a dentist appointment or before a medical procedure or before an important examination or just before meeting your partner's parents for the first time.  In some cases, anxiety can, however, become a disorder.  The anxiety that is felt constantly and intensely in the absence of a normal precipitating context could be seen as pervasive and problematic. There are different degrees of anxiety that can be felt on different levels of intensity and frequency.  Anxiety disorders can be chronic, in other words, you might have been suffering from abnormal levels of anxiety for many years and you could be experiencing high levels of anxiety almost every day, or it could be felt intermittently, meaning that you might feel very anxious at times but then feel completely anxiety-free for long periods of times. It could also be categorized by debilitating and acute attacks of anxiety.  Anxiety can have debilitating effects on your functioning and your everyday life and it is, therefore, important for you to understand it. 



The signs of anxiety

Anxiety is a feeling but it has a strong physiological manifestation.  These physiological manifestations could include the following:

  • Tightness in the chest and difficulty in breathing.

  • Sweaty hands.

  • Nausea.

  • Pain on the stomach.

  • Headaches.

  • Hand tremors.

  • Feeling dizzy.

  • Feeling weak.

  • Difficulty in concentrating.

  • Auditory oversensitivity.  Normal noises are too loud.

  • Excessive worrying.

  • Feeling disorientated – forgetting the date or where you were supposed to go.

  • Nervous behaviors such as nail-biting or fidgeting, can't sit still.

  • Excessive thinking – as if your brain won't switch off.

The most intense anxiety reaction is called a panic attack.


What is a panic attack?

A panic attack is a severe and intense anxiety attack.  The physical manifestations of anxiety as mentioned above is felt so intensely that you might feel like you are dying or that you are busy having a heart attack.  In a lot of cases, people who have their first panic attack might end up going to the emergency room out of fear that there might be something physically wrong with them.  Some people explain the feeling of having a panic attack as a feeling of hanging on the wing of a flying aeroplane by your fingertips.  Panic attacks are severe and intense and extremely debilitating. One of the worst aspects of panic attacks is that the fear of having another panic attack often leads to more chronic anxiety and in some cases debilitating avoidance behaviour.  You might find that you are trying to identify what triggered the panic attack and then try to avoid anything that could trigger it again.


Can I suffer from both chronic anxiety and panic attacks?

A lot of people with chronic anxiety also get panic attacks.  There are however a lot of people who have chronic anxiety or intermittent anxiety who do not get any panic attacks.


How frequently and how intense could you expect to feel anxiety?

The physical manifestations of anxiety can be felt in different degrees of intensity and for different periods of time.  In some cases, you can feel anxious the whole day.  One could describe this feeling as if an elephant is sitting on your chest.  In other cases, you could feel anxious for a few minutes.  You could have been suffering from anxiety since you were a child or developed it later in life.  You could have panic attacks daily or you could have one every few months; how often anxiety and panic attacks are felt differs from person to person and situation to situation.  There are triggering contexts associated with most anxiety disorders.













It is normal to feel anxious in certain situations but when anxiety is felt all the time in many situations or is felt so intensely that you cannot function or when it is felt in situations where you should not feel any anxiety, it could be seen as chronic anxiety and an anxiety disorder.  You should see a psychologist for therapy.  Read my next article to know which types of therapy is effective in relieving the symptoms of an anxiety disorder.  There are many different types of disorders under the DSM 5 anxiety disorder category. You may find my article on the different kinds of anxiety disorders helpful.