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Exploring anxiety
Exploring anxiety

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3.1 The experience of anxiety

The main types of anxiety and anxiety-related disorders are summarised in Box 2. We will look at diagnosis and diagnostic criteria a little later on, but the information provided here should serve as a useful reference as you read further and engage with the activities in Sections 3.1 and 3.2.

Box 2 Anxiety and anxiety-related disorders

Panic attack

A sudden episode of intense fear and desire to escape; distressing physical symptoms (pounding heart, shortness of breath, sweating, nausea, trembling), can be accompanied by fear of dying, losing control or ‘going crazy’; anxiety peaks in around ten minutes, then subsides; occurs in situations that do not involve ‘real’ danger; leads to overly worrying about additional attacks and temptation to avoid feared situations.

Generalised anxiety

Excessive worry (most days) about everyday events or activities; difficulty controlling worry, difficulty relaxing, sleep disturbances, difficulty concentrating, irritability, procrastination. Worry interferes with everyday life.

Social anxiety

Persistent fear of social or performance situations (e.g. dating, public speaking); intense fear of negative evaluation by others; fear of being humiliated or embarrassed; avoidance of feared situations or enduring intense distress.


Intense, persistent and excessive fears of animals, objects or of enclosed spaces.


Fear of having a panic attack in a place where escape may be difficult or help unavailable; avoidance of anxiety-provoking situations (e.g. shopping mall, public transport, etc.).

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)

Characterised by recurring upsetting thoughts, and attempts to deal with these (e.g. compulsions such as hand-washing, arranging items in a particular order, counting) to temporarily relieve anxiety.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Anxiety induced after witnessing or being subjected to or experiencing a traumatic event (recent or in the past).

Activity 3 The experience of an anxiety disorder and panic attacks

Timing: Allow 30 minutes

Watch the video below and consider the questions that follow. You might wish to view the entire recording first and then watch the video again thinking specifically about the questions the second time around, or you can review the questions as you watch the video from the start. Choose whichever approach suits you best.

Download this video clip.Video player: TED Talk: Alison Sommer − Anxiety Disorders and Panic Attacks
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TED Talk: Alison Sommer − Anxiety Disorders and Panic Attacks
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In this absorbing talk given in 2013 at Carleton College, a private liberal arts College in Northfield, Minnesota in the USA, Alison Sommer, a graduate of Carleton who was working as an academic technologist at Macalester College at the time, speaks candidly and poignantly about her personal experience with anxiety and panic attacks, sharing her difficult ordeal vividly with the audience on stage.

  1. What form of anxiety does Alison suffer from?

  2. How does her anxiety usually manifest?

  3. How does Alison describe her own temperament, growing up?

  4. What other mental health condition does Alison describe as having experienced, growing up?

  5. Before her sporting injury (her concussion), how did she come to terms with her anxiety?

  6. What, as she describes it, were the consequences of her concussion on her subsequent behaviour?

  7. How does she define a panic attack (according to the Mayo Clinic’s website)?

  8. How is Alison’s anxiety currently being managed?

  9. What useful tip does Alison offer to support people experiencing a panic attack?


  1. She states that she has a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder that causes her to become anxious or frightened when something wrong or unexpected happens. She also suffers from panic attacks, and intrusive ‘anxiety-provoking’ thoughts.

  2. Her anxiety can manifest in different physical and emotional responses, one of which is panic attacks.

  3. She describes herself as being really shy and awkward as a teenager, and obsessive-minded as a child.

  4. She notes ‘on-and-off’ issues with both anxiety and depression (prone to depression), and that she was anxious, awkward, obsessive and sometimes depressed.

  5. Through meeting people with similar interests, opening up and talking to people about her feelings.

  6. Her symptoms were exacerbated by the concussion. They became severe and worsened considerably (she refers to her anxiety and obsessive tendencies metaphorically as ‘basically being given steroids by the concussion’). Intrusive thoughts predominated. She was angry, she was not eating or sleeping and her marriage was adversely affected. Thinking about her situation and changing her habits made things worse, giving her further anxiety, leading to panic attacks. She was diagnosed with severe OCD.

  7. She defines a panic attack as 'a sudden episode of intense fear that triggers severe physical reactions when there is no real danger or apparent cause. Panic attacks can be very frightening. When a panic attack occurs, you might think you’re losing control, having a heart attack, or even dying.'

  8. Through a combination of medication and therapy, which is still being figured out (she describes this as a ‘dance’ given the difficult nature of finding the right combination that would work best). She still experiences panic attacks, but these are fewer and further in between.

  9. She says the best thing someone can do is to be there and let the person experiencing the panic attack know that they are there for them, and that they will support them, a comforting presence that will help ‘ride out those waves of panic’.