Functional Anxiety vs Anxiety Disorders

Posted: February 10th, 2014 | Category: Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety is the experience of fear, stress or worry that occurs under certain threatening situations or conditions. It serves a signalling function that alerts us to potential danger, which is a natural human experience and essential for our survival.


From an evolutionary perspective, anxiety allows us to survive risky situations by alerting us to possible danger and mobilising our internal resources to face or escape the threat. Without the capacity to experience anxiety, we would become overly complacent and unaware of the possible threats in our environment.


Although anxiety is a shared and crucial human experience, some people may have a diagnosable anxiety disorder. The line between functional anxiety and anxiety disorders is crossed usually when there are:



1. Heightened Anxiety Levels

Some individuals experience much higher levels of anxiety than others who are in a similar situation or circumstance. There is a tendency to over-estimate how bad an outcome might be in a given situation, as well as over-estimating the likelihood that the bad outcome will happen. Therefore, their anxiety levels are excessively high and are out of proportion to the actual level of danger that is present.


2. Difficulties Regulating Anxiety

Some people find it hard to manage their anxiety once they begin to feel anxious. The anxiety quickly spirals upwards and it feels as though it’s impossible to calm down or to stop the anxiety. This results in a sense of “churning” in high levels of anxiety or that there’s constantly anxiety and unease in day to day life.


3. Unhelpful Anxiety Coping Responses

Coping with high levels of anxiety can be very difficult, and people develop different strategies to help them get through. Unfortunately, some of these strategies can have negative impacts.


Sometimes individuals choose to cope with anxiety by avoiding situations, people or certain experiences. Alternatively, they may repeatedly engage in ‘safety behaviours’ which are actions that bring relief from a situation, such as always having a companion nearby, carrying a particular object or engaging in certain rituals in order to feel safe. Without the safety behaviours, they feel unable to cope, and they become highly reliant on these behaviours to get through life.


The over-reliance on avoidance and safety behaviours can become problematic when they start to interfere with one’s quality of life and relationships.


4. Anxiety About Anxiety

Sometimes, individuals may experience more anxiety on top of their initial anxiety. For example, a person may be anxious about a certain situation (e.g. losing a job), but their anxiety causes them to start worrying about the fact that they are having anxiety (e.g., that they may lose their mind, go crazy or do something stupid because of their anxiety). This is sometimes also referred to as “worry about worry”, and the added cycle of anxiety can keep escalating until the experience becomes intolerable.



Anxiety Disorders cover a range of various specific disorders including:


> Panic Disorder (anxiety about having a panic attack)
> Agoraphobia (fear of not being able to escape or get help)
> Social Anxiety (anxiety around social situations and being judged by others)
> Other Phobias (fear of specific things or situations, such as heights, needles, spiders)
> Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (fears associated with a traumatic life event)
> Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (intrusive and recurrent thoughts, images or impulses)
> Generalised Anxiety Disorder (heightened worry across different areas in life)



The ABS 2007 Mental Health and Wellbeing Survey found Anxiety Disorders to be the most common mental disorder in Australia, affecting around 14% of the population. Having an anxiety disorder can really interfere with quality of life, resulting in high distress and low life satisfaction. If you think that you might have an anxiety disorder, it could be useful to see a health professional for a consultation. With the proper help, an anxiety disorder is something that can be successfully managed and treated.


If you’d like to make an enquiry about getting help for anxiety, or to speak to any of our Psychologists at Indepth Psychology, please call us on 02 8068 4361 or fill in the contact form.


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