Anxiety disorders are a set of related mental conditions that include: generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), social phobia, and simple phobias. Anxiety disorders are treated by a combination of psychiatric medications and psychotherapy.
Anxiety, worry, and stress are all a part of most people’s everyday lives. But simply experiencing anxiety or stress in and of itself does not mean you need to get professional help or that you have an anxiety disorder. In fact, anxiety is an important and sometimes necessary warning signal of a dangerous or difficult situation. Without anxiety, we would have no way of anticipating difficulties ahead and preparing for them.
Anxiety becomes a disorder when the symptoms become chronic and interfere with our daily lives and ability to function. People suffering from chronic, generalized anxiety often report the following symptoms:
- Muscle tension
- Physical weakness
- Poor memory
- Sweaty hands
- Fear or confusion
- Inability to relax
- Constant worry
- Shortness of breath
- Upset stomach
- Poor concentration
When these symptoms are severe and upsetting enough to make individuals feel extremely uncomfortable, out of control, or helpless, it’s usually a sign of an anxiety disorder.
Anxiety disorders fall into a set of distinct diagnoses, depending upon the symptoms and severity of the anxiety the person experiences. Anxiety disorders share the anticipation of a future threat, but differ in the types of situations or objects that induce fear or avoidance behavior. Different types of anxiety disorder also have different types of unhealthy thoughts associated with them.
Anxiety disorders are the most commonly diagnosed mental disorders in the United States. The most common type of anxiety disorder are called “simple phobias,” which includes phobias of things like snakes or being in a high place. Up to 9 percent of the population could be diagnosed with this disorder in any given year. Also common are social anxiety disorder (social phobia, about 7 percent) — being fearful and avoiding social situations — and generalized anxiety disorder (about 3 percent).
Anxiety disorders are readily treated through a combination of psychotherapy and anti-anxiety medications. Many people who take medications for anxiety disorders can take them on an as-needed basis, for the specific situation causing the anxiety reaction.
Most people have experienced fleeting symptoms associated with anxiety disorders at some point in their life. Such feelings — such as having a shortness of breath, feeling your heart pounding for no apparent reason, experiencing dizziness or tunnel vision — usually pass as quickly as they come and don’t readily return. But when they do return time and time again, that can be a sign that the fleeting feelings of anxiety have turned into an anxiety disorder.
The primary types of anxiety disorders include:
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder Symptoms (GAD)
- Panic Disorder Symptoms – What is a Panic Attack?
- Agoraphobia Symptoms
- Social Anxiety Disorder Symptoms (also known as social phobia)
- Specific Phobia Symptoms (also known as simple phobias)
Causes & Diagnosis
Anxiety can be caused by numerous factors, ranging from external stimuli, emotional abandonment, shame, to experiencing an extreme reaction when first exposed to something potentially anxiety-provoking. Research has not yet explained why some people will experience a panic attack or develop a phobia, while others growing up in the same family and shared experiences do not. It is likely that anxiety disorders, like all mental illness, is caused by a complex combination of factors not yet fully understood. These factors likely include childhood development, genetics, neurobiology, psychological factors, personality development, and social and environmental cues.
Like most mental disorders, anxiety disorders are best diagnosed by a mental health professional — a specialist who is trained on the nuances of mental disorder diagnoses (such as a psychologist or psychiatrist).
Learn more: Causes of anxiety disorders
Treatment of anxiety focuses on a two-pronged approach for most people, that focuses on using psychotherapy combined with occasional use of anti-anxiety medications on an as-needed basis. Most types of anxiety can be successfully treated with psychotherapy alone — cognitive-behavioral and behavioral techniques have been shown to be very effective. Anti-anxiety medications tend to be fast-acting and have a short-life, meaning they leave a person’s system fairly quickly (compared to other psychiatric medications, which can take weeks or even months to completely leave).
The most effective type of treatment generally depends on the specific type of anxiety disorder diagnosed. The following articles cover treatment options available:
- Psychotherapy for Anxiety Disorders
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder Treatment
- Panic Disorder Treatment
- Social Anxiety Treatment – how social phobia/social anxiety is treated
- Simple Phobia Treatment – how specific phobias (like fear of heights or of flying) are treated
Living With & Managing Anxiety
What’s it like to live with an anxiety disorder on a daily basis? Is it always overwhelming, or are there specific strategies that can be used to make it easier to get through the day and manage anxiety successfully? Anxiety disorders are so common that we might take for granted that a person can live their lives and still suffer from occasional bouts of anxiety (or anxiety-provoking situations). These articles explore the challenges of living with and managing this condition.
- Living with an Anxiety Disorder
- 15 Small Steps You Can Take Today to Improve Anxiety Symptoms
- Fight or Flight?
- Taking on Anxiety and the Irrational Fears in Your Life
Peer support for anxiety disorders is often a useful and helpful component of treatment. We offer a number of resources that can help you feel that you’re not alone in battling this condition.
Take action: Find a local treatment provider
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.
National Institute of Mental Health. (2018). Anxiety. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/anxiety/index.shtml on March 25, 2018.