Anxiety disorders describe conditions in which a person’s anxiety occupies their thoughts, causes a high level of distress, and may even interfere with daily activities or relationships. Most of us feel anxious at times. Anxiety is a normal reaction to stress. It can help us get out of harm’s way, prepare for important events, and also warn us when we need to take action. However, if anxiety is persistent, excessive, overwhelming, or seemingly uncontrollable, it may be cause for concern.

Anxiety disorders may involve repeated episodes of sudden feelings of intense anxiety and fear. If you or someone you know is experiencing feelings of stress or anxiety that interfere with participation in daily activities, such as work or school, it may be time to seek help from a behavioral health specialist.

What are the Types of Anxiety Disorders?

People with anxiety disorders often have intense, excessive, and persistent worry and fear about everyday situations. There are several different types of anxiety disorders:

What are the Symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder?

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is a specific anxiety disorder characterized by persistent and excessive worry. This worry may be about family, money, health, or work, and typically persists for several days. People with GAD may expect the worst, even in situations that don’t warrant concern. Individuals may find it difficult to control their worry and focus on daily tasks.

People with generalized anxiety disorder typically recognize their feelings of anxiety or worry are out of proportion to the situation, but they are unable to control them. Many people with GAD believe their worry will prevent bad things from happening, so giving up the worry seems risky. This excessive worry can also lead to physical symptoms such as nausea and headaches.

Other symptoms of GAD may include fear of making the wrong decision, difficulty with uncertainty, difficulty concentrating, and feelings of restlessness. People with generalized anxiety disorder may experience times when their worries aren’t all-consuming, but feelings of anxiety persist, even when there’s no apparent reason. People with GAD may experience significant distress in social, academic, or career-related situations.

What are the Symptoms of Panic Disorder?

People with panic disorder experience sudden and repeated attacks of fear that last for several minutes or longer and may be triggered when there is no real threat. These panic attacks are characterized by a fear of disaster or losing control, even when there is no real danger. When panic attacks occur, someone might think they’re losing control, having a heart attack, or even dying.

Not everyone who suffers a panic attack has a panic disorder. People diagnosed with panic disorder typically have frequent panic attacks followed by excessive worry or anxiety about the attack.

Many of the symptoms of panic disorder mimic those of other health complications, such as heart disease, thyroid problems, and breathing disorders. Panic disorder may co-occur with other anxiety disorders, depression, substance use, irritable bowel syndrome, or asthma.

If you have panic attacks, but are not diagnosed with a panic disorder, treatment can be beneficial. If panic attacks are not treated, they can get worse and develop into panic disorder or other conditions, such as phobias.

What is a Phobia?

Phobias are among the most common anxiety disorders. Phobias are strong, irrational, and involuntary fears that may lead people to avoid everyday places, situations, or objects even when they present no real threat.

What is Agoraphobia?

People with agoraphobia fear and avoid places or situations that might cause panic. Individuals fear an actual or anticipated situation, such as using public transportation or being in enclosed spaces.

Many people who have agoraphobia develop it after having one or several panic attacks, causing them to worry about having another attack. Individuals may avoid the place(s) where the attack(s) occurred, for fear they will experience another panic attack. People with agoraphobia have a difficult time feeling safe in public places, especially where crowds gather.

These situations cause anxiety because a person fears they won’t be able to escape or find help if they start to feel panicked. Agoraphobia can severely limit an individual’s ability to socialize, work, attend important events, and even manage the details of daily life. Agoraphobia may also be associated with depression, substance use, mood disorders, or other anxiety disorders.

What are Specific Phobias?

Specific phobias involve an overwhelming and unreasonable fear of objects or situations that pose little actual danger but provoke anxiety and avoidance. Specific phobias may include fear of a particular animal, driving a car, heights, tunnels, bridges, thunderstorms, or flying.

People with specific phobias recognize that their fear is unproportional to the actual threat but are unable to subdue their fears. In some cases, specific phobias can cause severe anxiety or panic attacks. Specific phobias are long lasting, cause intense physical and psychological reactions, and can affect your ability to function normally at work, school, or in social settings.

What are the Symptoms of Social Anxiety Disorder?

Social anxiety disorder, also called social phobia, involves intense anxiety or fear of being judged, negatively evaluated, or rejected in a social or performance situation. People with social anxiety disorder may worry about appearing visibly anxious or being viewed as stupid, awkward, or boring. Those with social anxiety disorder will commonly avoid social or performance situations altogether.

Social anxiety disorder is mistakenly thought of as shyness, however shy people do not experience extreme anxiety in social situations. In contrast, individuals with social anxiety disorder can be at ease around people most of the time, just not in particular situations. People with social anxiety disorder frequently experience high levels of fear, nervousness, racing heart, blushing, excessive sweating, dry throat and mouth, trembling, and muscle twitches. Constant, intense anxiety and fear are the most common symptoms.

The symptoms of fear or anxiety can become severe, and may interfere with a person’s daily routine, occupational performance, or social life. People with social anxiety disorder are also at an increased risk of developing major depressive disorder and substance use disorders.

What are the Risk Factors for Anxiety Disorders?

Anxiety disorders can have a variety of causes, such as traumatic experiences, chronic illnesses, and genetics. For some people, anxiety might be linked to an underlying health issue, and can be one of the first indicators. These factors may increase your risk of developing an anxiety disorder:

  • Trauma: Experiencing or witnessing traumatic events may put children or adults at a higher risk of developing an anxiety disorder at some point in life.
  • Illness: Having a health condition or serious illness can cause significant worry about issues such as your treatment and your future.
  • Stress: A big event or a buildup of smaller stressful life situations may trigger excessive anxiety — for example, a death in the family, work stress or ongoing worry about finances.
  • Personality: People with certain personality types are more prone to anxiety disorders than others are.
  • Other mental or behavioral health complications: People with other mental health disorders, such as depression, often also have an anxiety disorder.
  • Genetics: Anxiety disorders can run in families.
  • Drugs or alcohol: Drug or alcohol use or misuse or withdrawal can cause or worsen anxiety.

When Should You See a Doctor?

Feelings of stress and anxiety are normal, and usually pass with time. A death in the family, losing a job, financial instability, and other life events can cause anxiety. When symptoms of anxiety don’t fade over time, or becoming overwhelming and disabling, talk to your doctor or make an appointment with a counselor or therapist.

Having an anxiety disorder does make you worry, but it can also lead to or worsen other mental, behavioral, cognitive, and physical conditions. Without treatment, anxiety can be crippling and disrupt daily activities. Anxiety disorders are real and should be taken seriously. Seek treatment sooner rather than later.

Learn More about Treatments for Anxiety Disorders.

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