We are no strangers to feelings of anxiety – at certain stages of our lives or in particular situations, we would have experienced anxiousness and worry with relation to our careers, studies, relationships and even our environment. However, anxiety levels may go beyond the healthy norm for some people, and may instead develop into anxiety disorders that may have a debilitating effect on their lives. According to the American Psychology Association (APA), an individual who suffers from an anxiety disorder is described to have “recurring intrusive thoughts or concerns”, where the duration and severity in which the individual experiences anxiety could be blown out of proportion to the original stressor, resulting in undesirable tension and other physical alterations. In this article, we will be exploring a few types of anxiety disorders as well as how they can manifest within us.
Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
Generalised Anxiety Disorder is a psychological issue characterised by persistent and pervasive feelings of anxiety without any known external cause. People who are diagnosed with GAD tend to feel anxious on most days for at least six months, and could be plagued by worry over several factors such as social interactions, personal health and wellbeing, and their everyday routine tasks. For example, an individual with GAD may find himself experiencing headaches, cold sweats, increased irritability and frequent feelings of “free-floating” anxiety. Others may also experience muscle tension, sleep disruptions or having difficulty concentrating. Often, the sense of anxiety may seemingly come from nowhere and last for long periods of time, therefore interfering with daily activities and various life circumstances.
In contrast, Panic Disorders are characterised by the random occurrence of panic attacks that have no obvious connection with events that are co-occurring in the person’s present experience. This means that panic attacks could occur at any time, even when someone is casually enjoying a meal. Of course, panic attacks could also be brought on by a particular trigger in the environment, such as a much-feared object or situation. Some individuals have reported that panic attacks feel frighteningly similar to a heart attack, especially with the rapid increase in heart palpitations, and the accompanying shortness of breath. Other symptoms also include trembling, sweating, and feelings of being out of control. With these panic attacks bringing on sudden periods of intense fear and anxiety, it can be exceptionally terrifying when these attacks reach their peak within mere minutes. However, a notable difference between a panic disorder and GAD is that an individual diagnosed with panic disorder is usually free of anxiety in between panic attacks.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is a disorder marked by patterns of persistent and unwanted thoughts and behaviours. Obsessions are recurrent thoughts, urges or mental images that cause anxiety. On the other hand, compulsions are the repetitive behaviours that a person feels the urge to do in response to an obsessive thought or image. One common example often exhibited in films is where an individual has an obsessive fear of germs. This person may avoid shaking hands with strangers, avoid using public restrooms or feel the urge to wash their hands way too frequently. However, OCD isn’t purely limited to feelings of anxiety due to germs. OCD can manifest in other ways as well, such as wanting things to be symmetrical or in perfect order, repeatedly checking on things (“Did I leave my stove on?”), or the compulsive counting of objects or possessions. While everyone double-checks their things and has their own habits, people with OCD generally cannot control their thoughts and behaviours, even if they are recognised to be rather excessive. They can spend at least 1 hour a day on these thoughts and behaviours, and will only feel the much-needed brief sense of relief from their anxiety when they perform their rituals. As such, OCD can be exceptionally debilitating to one’s mental health.
Social Anxiety Disorder
Persons with Social Anxiety Disorder, or SAD, experience high levels of anxiety and fear under particular or all social situations, depending on the severity of their condition. They are often afraid of being subjected to judgement, humiliation or rejection in public, causing them to feel embarrassed. As such, individuals with SAD may feel extra self-conscious and stressed out, and try to avoid social situations where they might be placed at the centre of attention.
A phobia involves a pathological fear of a specific object or a situation. This means that one may experience intense anxiety upon encountering their fears and will take active steps to avoid the feared object. Phobias may centre on heights(acrophobia), birds (ornithophobia), crowds and open spaces(agoraphobia), and many others. People with agoraphobia, in particular, may struggle to be themselves in public spaces, for they think that it would be difficult to leave in the event they have panic-like reactions or other embarrassing symptoms. In severe cases, agoraphobia can cause one to be housebound.
Originating from the Greek word ‘wound’, trauma is used to describe the unwelcome recollection of disturbing experiences – those which can cause one to relive horrifying, spine-chilling moments of a disaster or a tragic event which leaves a deep mark on a person’s life.
Flashbacks can be particularly frightening for people with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which is a delayed stress reaction, where an individual involuntarily re-experiences the mental and physical responses (i.e emotional, cognitive and behavioural aspects) that accompanied the past trauma. Symptoms can be particularly intrusive, presenting themselves in the form of nightmares and emotional distress upon remembering upsetting memories, and even certain physical reactivity after the exposure to traumatic reminders. Additionally, depending on the severity of one’s condition, the negative alterations in mood and behaviours may vary. Alterations may comprise of (non-exhaustive):
Exaggerated self-blame or others for causing the trauma, and a sense of invalidation
Decreased interest in activities
Increased irritability or aggression
Hyper-vigilance, excessive paranoia or heightened startle reaction
Difficulty sleeping or concentrating
Risky or destructive behaviour (can include the development of maladaptive coping strategies such as substance abuse)
A sense of isolation
Avoiding trauma-related stimuli / reminders of the traumatic event (including places, activities, people, thoughts or feelings that may bring back unwanted memories).
Unlike what most would perceive, PTSD does not solely affect individuals who have been through a tragic event personally. Apart from the direct exposure to a trauma, people can also develop PTSD through the witnessing of the event, or upon learning that a close one was exposed to the trauma. The indirect exposure to aversive details of the trauma in the course of professional duties (such as first responders or paramedics) can also make one prone to developing PTSD. With the effects lasting a lifetime for some individuals, PTSD can be debilitating to one’s mental health, robbing one of joy and freedom.
This is where Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT) comes in. DBT is a comprehensive cognitive-behavioural treatment that can provide strong empirical support for individuals struggling with PTSD, Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), Non-Suicidal Self-Injury (NSSI), and others. Intended to help persons with complex issues that place them at high risks of suicide or other self-destructive behaviours, DBT focuses on imparting the knowledge and skills to cope with PTSD and trauma reminders. Moreover, it also aims to assure the generalisation and application of skills learnt to the environment beyond the treatment setting, as well as to ensure that dysfunctional behaviours are not inadvertently reinforced. DBT consists of four stages, with the first two being the standard, essential stages for all clients.
Stage 1: Aiming to Achieve Better Stability and Behavioural Control
It is safe to say that most of the work is done at stage 1, where clients work hand-in-hand with their therapists to target behavioural dyscontrol and to address the chaos within them. When clients first take on DBT, they are often said to be at their lowest point in their lives. As such, stage 1 focuses on achieving control over life-threatening behaviours, therapy-interfering behaviours, as well as other factors that are causing a decline in their quality of life. At the same time, it will serve to increase one’s behavioural skills which can include mindfulness, interpersonal effectiveness , emotion regulation, distress tolerance and self-management. In short, this helps the individual to stabilise, and to reduce the frequency of impulsive and emotional outbursts.
However, stage 1 alone is insufficient. Although there are reductions in unwanted behaviours arising from the traumatic experience, these people may not have perfect control over their condition yet, and thus may still feel depressed, and anxious along with other PTSD symptoms.
In this stage, trauma-focused treatment is engaged, and past traumatic experiences are safely explored. Therapists will help clients to emotionally process them by approaching (gradually) the avoided trauma-related memories, as well as to help them continue applying the skills learnt in stage 1. With that said, the main objective of stage 2 is to discourage the client from silencing and burying the emotional pain.
Subsequently, this makes it easier for therapists to assess the severity of the problems, the relationships between the issues faced and to determine the hierarchy of needs based on the client’s goals.
Stage 3: Achieving Ordinary Happiness and Tackling Unhappiness
Upon ensuring that the individual is no longer suffocating under the same weight of fear that they once were, stage 3 aims to maintain progress and reasonable goal-setting. This establishes greater stability and addresses any other remaining problems in living. As the clients’ previous undesirable behaviours may have disrupted other aspects of their lives, stage 3 will also focus on improving relationships, and increasing valued daily activities.
Stage 4: Regaining the Capacity for Sustained Joy
Lastly, some people will choose to engage in stage 4 to find comfort in and to work towards spiritual fulfilment. This mainly helps to tackle any feelings of incompleteness as well as to ensure one’s capability to maintain an ongoing capacity for happiness.
DBT is an efficacious prototypic phase-based treatment of PTSD as it is a support-oriented approach to treatment, helping individuals to identify their own strengths and then building upon them to improve the person’s outlook on their life. By improving one’s ability to cultivate emotional regulation, increasing one’s ability to handle challenging emotions, and coping with conflict properly through interpersonal effectiveness, DBT can help traumatised individuals develop invaluable life skills that will allow them to achieve an overall improved quality of life.
Zimbardo, P. G., Johnson, R. L., & McCann, V. (2017). Psychology: Core Concepts (8th ed.). Pearson. (Accessed 22/11/2020)
Wagner, A. (2015). Applications of dialectical behaviour therapy to the treatment of trauma-related problems. Portland DBT Institute. https://adaa.org/sites/default/files/Wagner_MC.pdf (Accessed 22/11/2020)
In Singapore alone, 10% of the population is plagued by anxiety disorders – one of which includes Social Anxiety Disorder, or SAD for short. And on a global scale, approximately 4.5% of the world’s population – 273 million people – are estimated to experience anxiety disorders as of 2010. Commonly misunderstood to be merely an over-exaggerated form of shyness, Social Anxiety Disorder is much more than that. Individuals with SAD experience symptoms of anxiety or fear under particular or all social situations, depending on the severity of their condition. For some, even doing the simplest day-to-day activities in front of others can cause extreme worry of being judged, humiliated or rejected. However, some research has also suggested that SAD may be especially manifested in individuals that have ongoing medical, physical conditions such as Parkinson’s Disease, obesity, facial or bodily disfigurement (including amputees), and any other sort of conditions that may cause one to look different from the norm.
What are the symptoms of SAD?
When people with Social Anxiety Disorder are surrounded by others or have to carry out a particular action around them, they may:
Feel nauseous, experience an increase in heart rate, tremble, blush or sweat profusely.
Be unable to make eye contact with others, move and act rigidly, or speak in an overly soft tone.
Feel extremely self-conscious, as though others are judging their every move.
Easily feel awkward, embarrassed and stressed out in social situations.
Find it extremely difficult to be themselves around others, especially strangers.
Have anxious thoughts such as, “I’m sure they won’t want to talk to me again,” or “Do I look plain stupid right now?”
Apologise excessively, even when there is nothing to apologise for.
Avoid conversations, such as by using their mobile devices or plugging in their headphones.
Avoiding situations where one might be placed at the centre of attention.
The list of symptoms above is not exhaustive, but we need to recognise that they may cause extreme distress to these individuals. For them, it can be tremendously helpful and relieving for them to seek treatment for their condition, more specifically through Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is a well-known form of therapy in the mental health profession. Considered to be a form of short-term therapy, CBT is usually delivered in a time-limited manner, often over the course of 8 to 12 sessions (although this may vary from person to person). Once the symptoms are reduced and the individual is well-equipped with the necessary skills to cope with anxiety triggers or social situations in general, treatment can be finalised. As it is not possible to change or alter emotions directly, CBT aims to tackle any maladaptive, limiting thoughts and behaviours that fuel or contribute towards agonising emotions. This, therefore, lowers the extent of anxiety that one goes through and instead, developing a sense of self-efficacy.
First off, CBT encourages individuals to open up and to be truthful regarding their automatic, instinctive (negative) thoughts so that they can work hand-in-hand with therapists to analyse the logic behind them. During the sessions, therapists will work to identify the assumptions (and their validity) that these people hold, which might be causing unnecessary anxiety or fear. Proper reasoning and clearing up of assumptions can be done by asking clients to do some self-assessment and to provide possible reasons as to why they maintain such assumptions. By doing so, therapists can then assess the situation and present evidence contrary to their beliefs.
Another aspect of CBT includes ‘Decatastrophising’. One common thinking pattern found in people who suffer from anxiety issues is ‘Catastrophising’, which is the act of imagining the worst-case scenario and magnifying the bad in any given situation. CBT helps to counter such a mindset by helping these individuals prepare for the feared consequences, as well as to cope with their unhealthy ways of thinking. For example, therapists and clients will go through certain ‘Challenge Questions’, such as:
“Has anything this bad ever happened before? How likely is it to happen now?”
“What makes you confident that your feared outcome will actually come true?”
“What is the best outcome that can happen in this situation?”
These are just a few examples of ‘Challenge Questions’, but they can certainly be beneficial in helping to ease feelings of anxiousness and to calm the individual. In some way, this can also decrease an individual’s inclination to avoid seemingly triggering social situations.
Tying in with ‘Decatastrophising’, another technique introduced during CBT is ‘Reattribution’. ‘Reattribution’ is a method which challenges the negative assumptions held by the individual by considering the possible alternative causes of events. This is particularly advantageous for people who, in most situations, perceive themselves to be the cause of problem events. For example, this can mean having a discussion on the evidence which proves that the individual is/is not the cause of the problem. Eventually, this will help to tackle ‘Automatic Negative Thoughts’, excessive self-blame and worry.
Of course, in order for the treatment process to be carried out more effectively, some therapists do assign “homework” to their clients. This is to say that clients are encouraged to apply CBT principles in between sessions, and are tasked to self-monitor and focus on implementing tips and processes when dealing with actual situations. By monitoring their emotions and making a conscious effort to calm themselves through methods discussed during sessions, these individuals will eventually develop the much-needed skillsets to cope with emotionally-draining social environments.
A combination of cognitive and behavioural therapeutic approaches, CBT has been proven to be an extremely effective treatment method for anxiety disorders, including SAD. In fact, the skills you learn in CBT are practical and highly applicable, and hence can be incorporated into everyday life to help you cope with future stresses more effectively. As such, if you or a loved one is struggling with SAD, do seek treatment as it will ultimately benefit you in the best way possible.
Think of the following scenario: you have friends over at your place and you serve them drinks. Before they can place their cups on your beautiful coffee table, you exclaim and dart out coasters underneath the ice-cold glasses before the first drop of dew can drip on that expensive rosewood. Your lightning-fast reflexes have intercepted what would have been a disaster. Your friends are startled at first, then they laugh and tease you. They say you have OCD – obsessive-compulsive disorder.
This, or a similar instance, may have happened at some point in our lives before. We tidy up a mess in the presence of others, or when our belongings are organised ever so neatly, and we end up joking about OCD.
But in truth, OCD is far from such behaviours that could be written off so light-heartedly.
A person with OCD will have compulsions – they feel the need to perform certain repeated behaviours to reduce emotional distress or to prevent undesirable consequences. These compulsions are so intense that they cannot carry out other daily routines without acting on them. Some common ones include:
Excessive washing or cleaning – They fear contamination and clean or wash themselves or their surroundings many times within a day.
Checking – They repeatedly check things associated with danger, such as ensuring the stove is turned off or the door is locked. They are obsessed with preventing a house fire or someone breaking in.
Hoarding or saving things – They fear that something bad will happen if they throw anything away, so they compulsively keep or hoard things, usually old newspapers or scraps of papers which they do not actually need or use.
Repeating actions – They repetitively engage in the same action many times, such as turning on and off a light switch or shaking their head a numerous number of times, up 20 to 30 times.
Counting and arranging – They are obsessed with order and symmetry, and have superstitions about certain numbers, colours, or arrangements, and seek to put things in a particular pattern, insisting to themselves that the layout must be symmetrical.
When Does OCD Become Chronic and What Should You Do If That Happens?
OCD is a chronic disorder, so it is an illness that one will have to deal with for the rest of his or her life. It is difficult to tell when the disorder becomes chronic, as it presents the individual with long-lasting waxing and waning symptoms. Although most with OCD are usually diagnosed by about age 19, it typically has an earlier age of onset in boys than in girls, but onset after age 35 does occur.
A cognitive model of OCD suggests that obsessions happen when we perceive aspects of our normal thoughts as threatening to ourselves or to others, and we feel responsible to prevent this threat from happening. These misperceptions often develop as a result of early childhood experiences. For example, a child may experience living in a dirty and dusty environment, while being subjected to some form of trauma at the same time. He associates a lack of hygiene with suffering from the trauma. At a later stage in life, he may start to feel threatened upon seeing the unhygienic behaviours of someone he lives with, be it his parents, romantic partner, or flatmates. This leads to the reinforcement of the association and to the development of his beliefs that suffering is inevitable when unhygienic conditions are present, giving him compulsions to improve these unsanitary conditions through washing and cleaning.
If one is affected by OCD to the extent that he or she is unable to hold down a job and to manage household responsibilities, then there is a need for clinical treatment as the symptoms have become severe. Like in the above-mentioned example, recurrent and persistent thoughts of dirt will give the individual compulsions to neutralise these thoughts, resulting in repetitive washing, and checking behaviours. This causes distress and significantly affects one’s functioning.
When OCD has become a chronic illness, through a formulation of intervention strategies, the psychologist should extrapolate the client’s pattern of behaviour and expect a positive prognosis for functional improvement.
How Can OCD Be Treated?
A person diagnosed with OCD may seek treatment through a treatment plan that consists of cognitive strategies. These cognitive strategies involve consciously implementing sets of mental processes in order to control thought processes and content. Through these cognitive strategies, we can examine and restrict the thoughts and interpretations responsible for maintaining OCD symptoms. This is conducted in the initial stages of therapy.
Thereafter, Exposure Response Prevention (ERP) methods are carried out once a client is able to understand and utilise these cognitive strategies. ERP requires the client to list out their obsessive thoughts, identify the triggers that bring about their compulsions and obsessions and rate their levels of distress on each of these. Starting with a situation that causes mild or moderate distress, the client is exposed to their obsessive thoughts and simultaneously tries to resist, engaging in any identified behaviours that they have been using to neutralise these thoughts. The amount of anxiety is tracked each time the process is repeated. When anxiety levels for this particular situation eventually subside, over several repeated processes, and when they no longer feel significant distress over this situation, the same method is repeated for the next obsessive thought with the next level of distress.
A client who is able to demonstrate strength in coping with the symptoms has a better likelihood for sufficient recovery.
OCD is Becoming More Prevalent in Singapore: How has it Been Accepted in Society?
In recent years, OCD has topped the list of mental disorders in Singapore, with the greatest number of people experiencing it in 2018, compared with other mental illnesses.
The disorder has been found to be more prevalent among young adults than those aged 50 and above. In terms of socio-economic status, OCD is more likely to occur amongst those with a monthly household income of less than S$2,000 than those who earn above that amount.
It has also been found that the prevalence of people experiencing OCD at least once in their lifetime is higher in Singapore than in South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.
In addition to becoming more prevalent, people who experience OCD are also becoming increasingly reluctant to seek psychiatric help or counselling, making matters worse. There is some acceptance of the condition as normal and trivial by society, because people who do not understand the disorder well enough misconceive OCD as a quality of being clean and tidy, as being clean and tidy is usually seen as a good thing. This misconstrual by society is dangerous for the undiagnosed, and their condition will further deteriorate if they continue to put off addressing their disorder.
The disorder will get worse if treatment is ignored, and there is a need to realise it in its early stages through observing how one’s life is being disrupted. Awareness about its onset of symptoms is important.
Vasantham (Mediacorp’s Tamil & Hindi TV Channel) studios reached out to Promises Healthcare’s Senior Clinical Psychologist, S C Anbarasu, in the name of bringing greater mental health awareness to the Indian community in Singapore.
S C Anbarasu shared on the En Ullae episode on Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), which featured an actor playing the role of Bala, a well-educated 29-year-old man who struggled with the disorder, bringing his mother to exasperation at times – because as an outsider looking in, she simply wasn’t equipped to understand the condition. Kartik Anand, a social worker who has dabbled in theatre, retold his very personal conception and experience of living with the disorder, albeit with a great deal calmer than “Bala”. The two narratives played off each other, the contrast in each man’s tone and manner starkly laying out the case for sensible treatment. OCD, according to Anbarasu, is a condition that is treatable – with medication and/or therapy. This, he let on at the close of the episode, as a rather stirring montage of Kartik’s achievements on the stage served to remind viewers the uncharitableness of stigmatising people suffering from mental disorders. I haven’t been diagnosed with anything in the DSM-V, but I definitely couldn’t do what Kartik’s done in the field of arts!
Broadly, OCD “traps” an individual within the pounding negativity of unintentional, “dangerous”, recurring thoughts. It exists on a spectrum, where the diagnosis is made upon examination of the severity of four key symptoms. An obsession with cleanliness and avoiding contamination, intrusive thoughts that may be disturbing in nature, fixation on symmetry and order, and desires to harm others that leak forth the yawning chasm that is the mind. OCD affects all aspects of a sufferers’ life – relationships, career, friendships, family, because when undiagnosed and untreated, it is, for lack of a better word, insidious. For Kartik, the weekends were not a source of solace – the dread of his intrusive thoughts running amok kept him clamouring for the steady humdrum of office life and its banal distractions. Interestingly, the episode went out of its way to hint that a mind plagued by OCD shouldn’t simply be viewed as a byzantine web of horrors – both “Bala” and Kartik, upon noticing an injured pigeon, were ensnared by their empathy for the distressed creatures. “Bala” felt the expiration of the pigeon’s nasty, brutish and short life as if it were a weight he had to carry, while Kartik battled his obsession with cleanliness by tending to the bird, risking contact with the animal’s blood. Empathy and bravery. Anbarasu emphasised the importance of finding out if comorbid disorders (a medical term in psychiatry for someone that has more than one mental disorder) were also present, because of the difficulty of diagnosis. In the final third of the episode, the viewer is meant to empathise, or at least sympathise with “Bala” – who unravels in a frenzied spiral of intrusive thoughts. Plagued by visions of harming his closest friend, or a pretty waitress he’d spotted, he is driven to hallucinations as bizarre as his showerhead turning into a snake.
Caught in a cycle of insomnia and isolation, his thoughts overwhelm him to the point of complete breakdown – he melts into the comforting bosom of his mother, all the while cognizant that he is a 29-year-old man. The tragic tale of “Bala” remains unresolved, but serves to inform the public that it is of the utmost importance to get a potential sufferer into treatment if the symptoms’ severities warrant it. Anbarasu brings the episode to a close, by using “Bala” as a cautionary tale – if you are experiencing such symptoms, or notice a loved one behaving similarly, seek professional medical help from a trained therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist. It is a treatable condition, and with the right help, your life could be as full as Kartik Anand’s.