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Anxiety Disorders, Depression and "What's Wrong With Me?"

The Bear and the Flagpole

The Bear and the Flagpole

You're running down the road, you are frightened, something is behind you. You can feel its presence bearing down on you. It is chasing you, it's overbearing and you know that if it catches you it will destroy you.

Wherever you run it follows; down every street, down every alley it's still there right behind you. You run into a house and hide – still it comes. Managing to glance back you see it, it is in fact a ... giant grisly bear ... snarling ferociously and wanting to kill you.


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The Problem
The Symptoms
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Anxiety Self-Help
Generalized Anxiety
Disorder (GAD)

Obsessive Compulsive
Disorder (OCD)

Post Traumatic Stress
Disorder (PTSD)

Panic Disorder
Social Phobia


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Psychiatrists (UK)


Tiredness is setting in, you've been running for so long and still the bear is right behind you. What can you do? How can you escape? You turn a corner and you see it, there in the distance: your salvation.

Twenty yards in front of you ... a flagpole ... you'll be safe up there, the bear won't be able to get you. You make it and climb to the top just as the bear reaches the bottom of the pole. Seeing the bear down below you breathe a sigh of relief, you are safe.

Suddenly you feel scared, you realise that you are thirty feet in the air, any wrong movement and you could fall; you must stay alert at all times to prevent this. So there you are... at the top of the flagpole, unable to go down towards the bear, constantly alert lest you fall...


The above describes a dream (The Bear and the Flagpole), a dream that symbolises most anxiety disorders and how we come to live our lives with these problems: constantly alert, always anxious to some degree.

When life makes us feel vulnerable and scared, and insecurity builds, many of us dream about being chased by some wild beast, unable to shake it off. This represents anxiety building up for no apparent reason and the increasing feelings of insecurity.

The flagpole symbolises anxiety disorders and our attempts to stop the anxiety by being 'better' in some way, to be at the top... it's an anxious struggle to stop the fear inside).


With anxiety-related problems (including depression) we watch ourselves in everything we do and it's not difficult to appreciate how this self -absorption can lead us to believe that we are the only one with such a problem. This, in itself, strengthens the "what's wrong with me?" beliefs, yet nothing could be further from the truth.

Millions of people worldwide experience these problems; it is estimated that in America alone over forty million people suffer from some form of anxiety disorder. The most common one is Social Anxiety Disorder (or Social Phobia), closely followed by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Around one in thirty to fifty people suffer from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and one in ten are reported to have a specific phobia.

This doesn't include vast numbers of people who have depression or those living anxious lives ruled by shyness or stress. Many people feel they are working below their potential and are frustrated, more people are unhealthy and overweight than ever before, greater numbers of teenagers are depressed and problems involving anxiety and stress account for the majority of visits to doctor's surgeries. In a world of better education, food, hygiene and healthcare... emotionally, society is crumbling.

In reality, when we suffer from an anxiety-related problem we are not alone – many, many people are feeling the same way.

Current understanding classifies anxiety disorders in 5 main groups:-

1. Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
This involves long-lasting exaggerated and unrealistic worry over such things as: the health and personal safety of ourselves and family members, money problems, accidents happening etc. It is often accompanied by physical anxiety symptoms such as trembling, being on-edge and numerous body aches and pains.

2. Panic Disorder
The focus here is on attacks of panic that appear to come on for no reason ('out of the blue'). Involving a racing heartbeat (palpitations), chest pain, sweating, trembling and shaking, many people fear that they are having a heart attack or stroke, dying or going mad.

3. Phobias
These can be specific such as the fear of a certain thing (eg. spiders, dogs, snakes etc. - known as simple phobias) or more generalized, where the fear involves situations. Examples include Agoraphobia: the fear of outdoors or places where relief or escape from a panic attack would be difficult and Social Phobia (social anxiety disorder) in which we fear situations where we have to do things in front of others and there is the possibility that they may judge / ridicule / reject us.

4. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
This is characterised by the perfoming of rituals or routines (compulsions, eg. hand washing) to relieve the anxiety caused by recurring thoughts (obsessions, eg. fear of being contaminated or contaminating others).

5. Post Traumatic Stress Disorders (PTSD)
Here, traumatic events that have been experienced are often re-lived through such things as flashbacks or nightmares. This can lead to avoiding similar situations or places, emotional numbing and the physical symptoms of anxiety.

High anxiety also forms the basis for most serious forms of Depression, which involves an intangible pressure and feelings of not being able to cope, frustration and despair.

And Eating disorders also have anxiety at their core.


Anxiety disorders that develop can vary as infinitely as the individual life experiences that play a part in their cause. Yet they all develop and grow in the same way, they've got to, for we are all human with the same evolved fears and drives, the same nervous systems and we all function in the same way.

Ranging from acute shyness and stress to anxiety disorders and depression, each problem is unique to the individual. Expressions of social phobia vary from person to person just as those of agoraphobia vary from panic disorder and GAD varies from OCD.

However, as unique to the individual these problems are and as different to each other they are, these problems develop for similar reasons and strengthen in a similar way. They do so in a manner that reflects the way our mind and body works.

As such, these problems aren't illnesses or diseases. Indeed, in one sense, they are not even disorders for they are not irrational, they develop for a good reason... for our survival.

Every human being on the planet (indeed, every animal) is built in such a way to develop an anxiety disorder given the right (or wrong) set of negative life experiences.

These problems reflect the subconscious ways that humans have evolved to protect themselves. Almost everyone displays behaviours associated with anxiety disorders such as disturbing thoughts, ritualistic checking, the need for perfection, anxiety, panic and despair at some time in their lives.

How many 'normal' people...

point  Say 'Touch Wood' so as not to tempt fate?
point  Repeatedly check doors, windows, switches?
point  Take a drink before social functions?
point  Avoid public speaking at all costs?

We may look at other people and think that they are more confident than us, but that is not always the case, confidence exists on different levels. Some people are very confident in some situations and not so confident in others.

qstart Those with a high level of confidence may have as many or more weaknesses than those with low self-esteem. The difference is this; instead of dwelling on their handicaps, they compensate for them by dwelling on their strengths.qend

... Alan Loy McGinnis

Unfortunately for many uf us, our life experiences make us focus exclusively on our weaknesses. But it doesn't have to be like this.

In the next section we'll take a look at some of the symptoms that occur across many different anxiety problems and disorders (including depression) – something which, in itself, relfects just how similar these problems really are...

›› The Symptoms








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