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Understanding Anxiety Disorders: Part One

Anxiety disorders are divided into six major categories:

  1. generalized anxiety disorder (GAD);
  2. panic disorder;
  3. phobias;
  4. obsessive-compulsive disorder;
  5. acute stress disorder; and
  6. post-traumatic stress disorder.

Because the symptoms of each category overlap somewhat, it is not uncommon for someone to be diagnosed with more than one anxiety disorder at any given time. These disorders are collectively relatively common; at least three percent of the U.S. population has experienced an anxiety disorder.

Here’s a table comparing the characteristics of different types of anxiety:

WorryNormal, low-grade concern
Stress AnxietyBrief alarm, then back to normal
Generalized Anxiety DisorderConstant low-grade worry. Constant yellow alert
Panic AttacksSudden, inexplicable panic. Red alert

What Causes an Anxiety Disorder?

No one knows for sure. There is evidence that some people are born more prone to anxiety than others, and evidence that societal factors play a large role as well. Parents with a tendency to be overly anxious can pass that tendency on to their children. Unsupportive or abusive family lives can cause the development of anxiety disorders as well. Still others develop anxiety disorders because they are exposed to a traumatic event like an accident, natural disaster, or severe abuse that makes them question their basic safety in the world. As a general rule, studies indicate that women are twice as likely to develop anxiety disorders as men.

Finally, there are some physical conditions that make people act like they are having panic attacks or anxiety. Among these are hypoglycemia, hypothyroidism, hyperthyroidism, a mitral valve prolapse, inner ear problems, congestive heart failure, deficiencies of certain minerals and vitamins, withdrawal (like nicotine withdrawal), and PMS.

For more information on specific anxiety disorders, continue with Part 2 of this series.

Last reviewed:
On 3 Oct 2005
By John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Understanding Anxiety Disorders: Part One

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Marie Hartwell-WalkerDr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central's Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart.

Check out her book, Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem.

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2020). Understanding Anxiety Disorders: Part One. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 9, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 14 Jan 2020 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 14 Jan 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.