Categorizing Anxiety

Alex Robboy, CAS, MSW, LCSW
Individual, Couples & Family Therapy
IMAGO Certified Marriage Counselor
AASECT Certified Sex Therapist Supervisor
Founder & Director of the Center for Growth Inc.

Posted by: Alex Robboy
CAS, MSW, LCSW Individual, Couples & Family Therapy IMAGO Certified Marriage Counselor AASECT Certified Sex Therapist Supervisor Founder & Director of the Center for Growth Inc.
267-324-9564

Categorizing Anxiety: Learn the Difference Between Anxiety Types Anxiety can come in many shapes and sizes. In other words, it does not discriminate between people, nor do those who suffer with it typically discriminate between their attacks. Yet the truth is that anxiety can be broken down into four main categories which, when identified, can reveal much about the underlying issues behind each attack and give clues to overcoming those issues. Learning these four categories and recognizing them in action will give you an edge in solving your anxiety dilemma: 

Realistic- (categorizing anxiety) Anxiety that falls under this heading is just a it seems. It stems from a true and valid source that would create a certain amount of tension in most any individual. Perhaps the person diagnosed with clinical anxiety suffers from a more extreme response than others, or perhaps not. In either case, it is important to determine if their current feelings of anxiety are realistic, because if they are, then practical steps to disarm the source of their anxiety should be taken as opposed to simply attempting to disengage the mental and physical response. Examples of realistic anxiety would include scenarios like meeting a deadline that one is truly unprepared for, being in a physical accident of some kind, loss of a loved one, or being confronted or threatened by another person. These incidents are real, they are truly as they seem, not exaggerated or misunderstood; and they create genuine feelings of anxiety in most individuals. In these cases, the sufferer’s energy is better put to confronting the situation practically (i.e. working to catch up before the deadline or dealing with the bodily harm acquired in the accident) as opposed to only coping with the symptoms mentally.

Catastrophizing- (categorizing anxiety) This category lies in strict opposition to realistic anxiety. Rather than stemming from a true and valid source, this type of anxiety stems from an exaggerated and dramatized trigger. Generally speaking, an actual incident may have occurred prior to the dramatization, but the anxiety is truly coming from the individual’s overreaction to the incident and not the incident itself. Recognizing catastrophizing behavior is crucial, as any attempts to confront the incident itself are futile. What must be confronted is the individual’s response to the incident and their exaggeration of it. Examples of catastrophizing include believing someone is angry or attacking the person when their words and actions do not support that, dreading a deadline that is neither looming nor threatening in any way, fearing an accident or bodily harm when one is not imminent, or assuming they are going to lose a loved one when the facts do not convey that (i.e. the person is healthy or not seriously ill). In cases like these, the individual quite literally blows the incident out of proportion. Maybe something occurred to spark the exaggeration, for instance in the first case perhaps a coworker did not stop to talk with the individual when they saw him/her at work in the break-room. This does not imply anger or attack in any way. Most likely the person was simply in a hurry to return to their work. Yet, the anxiety sufferer begins to assume or imagine the person is angry, threatening, or does not like them. What began as a meaningless exchange is soon blown into a perceived threat that has no basis in reality, igniting a host of anxiety symptoms that are not a direct result of the coworker’s actions, but of the sufferer’s response.

True in this instance- (categorizing anxiety) This category implies that the anxiety felt by the individual is based in either reality or dramatization, but tempered by the recognition that it does not apply to every similar incident hereafter. At this point, the anxiety may already be determined as realistic or catastrophizing, but taking it further one must determine if the individual is holding their anxiety to this instance alone or applying to all instances like it in the past, present, and especially future. What you are determining here is the individual’s application of their anxiety and whether that is true or realistic or exaggerated and catastrophizing. If the sufferer is anxious about an approaching deadline, whether it is reasonable for them to be or not, do they believe they will miss only this deadline, or all deadlines after? Do they believe the results of missing the deadline will apply only to this situation or affect their entire future? Are their beliefs reasonable or not? Knowing an individual’s anxiety is limited to the present circumstances allows you to focus on combating the anxiety as it applies to that circumstance only. The approach is more direct and the sufferer is more likely to not to face the same symptoms the next time they are confronted with a similar issue.

True in every instance- (categorizing anxiety) As opposed to the previous category, this category indicates that the individual applies their anxiety to the current circumstances and all circumstances like it that may come. Anxiety that fits in this category is marked by unrealistic, definitive beliefs and statements. Comments like, “If I screw this up it just proves how stupid I am” are indicative of this type of anxiety.  These comments might be said aloud, or more likely are internalized and thought rather than stated. In this case, the individual believes that the mistake negates their ability to do anything right, as implied by the word ‘stupid’; whereas the more likely truth is that one mistake is limited to one incident and there is no reason to assume the next incident cannot be handled differently. Knowing when yours or a loved one’s anxiety falls under this heading is important because it illuminates whether you are working against a solitary cause and effect or a generalized mentality that must be redirected in a more positive perspective in order to assuage the anxiety.

As you can see from these four types of anxiety, not every attack is the same. Being able to categorize yours or a loved one’s anxiety can be very helpful in overcoming it. Knowing whether the anxiety is realistic, catastrophizing, true in this case, or always true allows you to strategically develop a plan to combat the anxiety how, where, and when it needs to be addressed.