Around 80 per cent of the patients who see me for therapy have symptoms of anxiety. For some of them, anxiety is the main issue, and it often comes with panic attacks. This isn’t surprising, as anxiety is one of the world’s most commonly reported mental disorders. As a result, it is also among the most widely researched topics in psychology, which has translated into a staggering amount of resources on the subject being published online. Sadly, not every resource that’s available online is accurate, so learning about anxiety can be potentially confusing and overwhelming.
I think a good starting point for anyone with anxiety – or anyone who wants to understand it better – is to learn about the terms that we use to frame it in psychology. Being able to articulate your symptoms accurately in therapy is important, because it will help your practitioner to assess you more accurately and efficiently. I have compiled some of the most common and important terms that I use in my work with patients below. This will put you in a good starting position to work with your psychologist on getting better.
What is a symptom?
A symptom is a physical or mental feature experienced by an individual that points to the possible existence of a disorder. Insomnia is a sleep disorder, but is often also a symptom for something else. Making sense of what a patient/client experiences in a wider context is one important role that a psychologist plays. Because of this, a psychologist will often need additional information, like the frequency and severity of a particular symptom (e.g. “I have only been able to sleep for three hours every night in the past week.”) It’s important to note that the existence of a symptom does not automatically mean that a clinical disorder is present – professional assessment is required for any diagnosis.
What is a trigger?
A trigger is a stimulus that causes psychological distress in an individual. This could be something in the environment, a person, an event, or a situation, for example, that is perceived as unpleasant and upsetting to an individual. It could be something that is already present in the environment, an event that has already happened, or something that has not yet come to pass. An upcoming performance appraisal, for instance, could be a trigger for someone who suffers from anxiety issues at work.
Anxiety attack vs panic attack
“Anxiety attack” and “panic attack” are often used interchangeably, but there’s no such thing as an “anxiety attack”. Instead, the correct term is “panic attack”, which describes a cluster of temporary symptoms that a highly anxious individual experiences. Common symptoms include an accelerated heart rate, racing thoughts, tightness of the chest, difficulty breathing, shortness of breath, and feeling lightheaded. While many individuals with anxiety can suffer from panic attacks, it is not universally experienced by everyone with anxiety.
Presenting issues and level of functioning
A presenting issue is a symptom or a problem that is given by the patient as the reason for seeking therapy. A patient’s level of functioning is always assessed during therapy, as it reflects how effectively they are able to perform in various domains (e.g. work, interpersonal relationships, community obligations etc.).
Some examples of presenting issues include:
“I haven’t been able to sleep/eat for the past one week”
“I haven’t been able to concentrate at work as well as before”
“I have been more and more irritable at my kids”
Examples of decreasing levels of functioning
“I haven’t been able to produce at work, and even my colleagues are starting to notice”
“I get so tired sometimes that I am not able to get out of bed at all.”
“I’ve been so short lately that I’ve been arguing with my husband on a daily basis”
A Parting Note
If these terms are confusing, not to worry – a good psychologist will be able explain these terms at an appropriate pace in your sessions as part of the therapy process.