Everyone experiences anxiety sometimes. But when anxiety feels extreme and gets in the way of your daily life, this might indicate an anxiety disorder.
Anxiety disorders are one of the most common mental health conditions in the United States. So if you’re feeling concerned about your anxiety, know that you’re not alone.
In fact, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) estimates that almost one-third of U.S. adults will have an anxiety disorder during their lifetimes.
While anxiety can feel overwhelming at times, there are many ways to cope. With the right tools, you can manage your anxiety and start feeling less anxious.
Keep reading to learn about the different types of anxiety disorders, symptoms and treatments, and tips to help you manage your anxiety.
Anxiety refers to feelings of nervousness, fear, or worry. Most people will feel anxious before a job interview, when taking a test, or on their first day at a new job or school.
Anxiety disorders involve excessive fear, anxiety, or worries that interfere with your well-being and ability to function. For example, recurring anxious thoughts and behaviors can have a big impact on your work life, school life, hobbies, or relationships.
Anxiety disorders are defined by the situations or objects that cause your anxiety. Some anxiety disorders have different symptoms and types of negative thoughts associated with them.
Types of anxiety disorders include:
- Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). The focus of your anxiety isn’t on one thing but several things when you have GAD. This could include health, social interactions, or work. These worries appear on more days than not for at least 6 months.
- Panic disorder. This disorder involves recurrent and unexpected panic attacks. Panic disorder can lead to worry or stress about future panic attacks. It’s important to note that having panic attacks doesn’t always mean you have panic disorder.
- Agoraphobia. This condition involves an intense fear of a situation that might be difficult to escape from. This might include open spaces, enclosed spaces, or public transport. For some people, these fears make it difficult to leave the house.
- Social anxiety disorder. Previously known as social phobia, this is an intense fear of social situations or performing in front of others. The anxieties are linked with a fear of negative judgement from others, and a fear of showing signs of anxiety or embarrassment in public.
- Specific phobias. Also known as simple phobias, this involves an intense fear of a certain object or situation. The fear is out of proportion with the actual danger posed. Common phobias people have involve animals, heights, flying, and injections.
- Separation anxiety disorder. This condition involves intense anxiety about being separated from people you feel close to. This can affect both children and adults.
Other mental health conditions may feature anxiety symptoms, though they’re not labeled as a type of anxiety disorder under the DSM-5:
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD can develop after experiencing a traumatic event. The symptoms typically develop within 3 months of the trauma, but sometimes they don’t arise until years later.
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). OCD involves recurring, uncontrollable thoughts or behaviors. The obsessions or compulsions linked with OCD can create intense anxiety.
Specific phobias are the most common anxiety disorders in the United States. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) estimates that specific phobias affect 19 million adults, or 8.7% of the U.S. population.
The ADAA also says that social anxiety disorder affects around 15 million adults, and GAD affects at least 6.8 million U.S. adults.
Anxiety disorders are characterized by strong feelings of fear or worry that impact your well-being and daily functioning.
Intense anxiety often leads to changes in behavior. Anxiety feels very unpleasant, so people tend to avoid situations or objects that might provoke their anxiety.
Anxiety symptoms arise when the body feels under threat. This is part of the fight, flight, or freeze response.
Hormones like adrenaline and cortisol increase to prepare the body for action, which makes the heart pump faster, speeds up our breathing, and prepares our muscles for movement.
Anxiety has both physical and mental effects. These include:
- racing thoughts
- shortness of breath
- rapid heart rate or feeling like your heart is pounding hard
- upset stomach
- dry mouth
- feeling dizzy
- feelings of dread or panic
- tunnel vision
- feeling restless
- muscle tension
- physical weakness
- poor memory
- trouble concentrating
- constant worry
Most of these symptoms will feel familiar even if you don’t have significant problems with anxiety. But when they’re severe, recurring, and upsetting enough to make you feel extremely uncomfortable, out of control, or helpless, this might signal an anxiety disorder.
Anxiety disorders, like many other mental health conditions, are likely caused by a complex combination of elements, including environmental and genetic factors.
Research hasn’t yet explained why some people will experience a panic attack or develop a phobia while others who grew up in the same family or have shared experiences do not.
Many factors may contribute to the development of an anxiety disorder, including:
- childhood development
- psychological factors
- personality development
- social and environmental cues
- protective factors
While the causes differ between the types of anxiety disorders, risk factors for anxiety disorders in general may include:
- being exposed to stressful events, either in childhood or adulthood
- a family history of anxiety or other mental health conditions
- certain physical health conditions, including thyroid problems or heart arrhythmia
- shyness in childhood
Anxiety disorders are more common in females, affecting an estimated 23.4% of females and 14.3% of males.
Communities that face discrimination often have higher rates of anxiety disorders.
For example, 39% of LGBTQ+ people reported having a mental health condition in the past year, and they’re more likely to deal with conditions like anxiety and depression than heterosexual, gender-conforming people.
For many people, anxiety treatment has two primary elements: psychotherapy (talk therapy) and medications, if indicated.
Anxiety disorders are very treatable, though the ADAA estimates that only 36.9% of people receive treatment.
The most effective type of treatment can depend on the type of anxiety disorder.
Even without professional help, you can reduce your anxiety levels by using everyday coping methods. Different methods work better for different people, so it’s worth trying out a few strategies to see what works best for you.
Most types of anxiety respond well to psychotherapy alone.
CBT provides a safe space and expert guidance to gently adjust the person’s ways of thinking about and reacting to objects or situations that produce anxiety.
One type of therapy that can be helpful for certain anxiety disorders, like phobias, is exposure response prevention (ERP) therapy. This involves working with a mental health professional to slowly and safely expose you to what causes your anxiety.
Anxiety medications don’t cure anxiety, but they can provide relief from symptoms.
Depending on the type of medication, people may take them on an as-needed basis for the specific situation that causes anxiety or panic, for relief from physical symptoms, or on a daily basis.
Benzodiazepines are a common class of anti-anxiety medication usually taken as needed. They tend to be fast-acting and leave the body fairly quickly compared to other psychiatric medications, which can take weeks or months to leave the system and also be slower to kick in.
Black box warning
It’s important to note that benzodiazepines, like Xanax and Ativan, have a black box warning from the FDA and may cause physical dependence or withdrawal.
The most common types of medications taken for anxiety disorders include:
- anti-anxiety drugs
Everyday coping methods
Working out what’s best for you can involve some trial and error. It’s important to go at your own pace and do what feels comfortable. Then, keep doing what feels helpful for you.
You can’t always predict when anxiety or a panic attack is going to occur, but making a plan of what to do can help you feel more in control. This can make it easier to manage.
Many people find that relaxation methods are a powerful tool for soothing anxiety. These include:
- Deep breathing exercises. Take a few deep breaths in and out, focusing on each breath. This make you feel more grounded and in control of your body. Deep breathing can soothe the body’s stress response.
- Mindfulness meditation. When you feel anxious, mindfulness can create calm and give you some breathing space. Practicing mindfulness regularly, even when you’re not feeling anxious, can provide you with the tools to bring your anxiety under control when it does arise.
Exercising regularly can also be a really helpful way to manage anxiety. If this feels difficult, try starting out gently by taking a walk, or standing up and stretching for a few minutes.
Movement and activity generates endorphins, which are our feel-good hormones. These hormones boost your mood and reduce anxiety.
For some people, caffeine and certain medications can produce anxiety symptoms or make their symptoms worse. In these cases, limiting caffeine and alcohol can help reduce anxiety.
Anxiety can sometimes make people feel alone or cut off from their surroundings, but anxiety disorders are more common than many people realize.
Peer support for anxiety disorders can be a helpful part of treatment. This could be through online communities or in-person meetings.
There are a number of resources online that can help:
- National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). They provide links to education and support groups, tips for coping with anxiety disorders, and how to help others with anxiety.
- Mental Health America. Find a list of specialized online and local support groups.
- SAMHSA’s National Helpline. Reach out 24/7 to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for help finding local assistance and support.