January 12, 2023

What Is an Anxiety Disorder?

Everyone has feelings of anxiety at some point in their life. But anxiety disorders involve more than temporary worry or fear. 

A little bit of worry every now and then can be helpful. For example, it can help you get ready for a presentation at work or finish a school assignment. Even good things, like moving into a new home or reaching a big milestone, can make you feel anxious. It's just part of being human.

For people with an anxiety disorder, the anxiety does not go away and can worsen over time. The symptoms can make it hard to do daily activities, like work and school tasks, and it can interfere with relationships.

Most people with anxiety disorders know that their fears are irrational and out of proportion. When they come for treatment, many say, “I know my fears are unreasonable, but I just can’t seem to stop them.”

The Types of Anxiety Disorders

The main types of anxiety disorders are:

  • Specific phobia (phobia-related disorders).
  • Panic disorder.
  • Agoraphobia.
  • Generalized anxiety disorder.
  • Social anxiety disorder.
  • Separation anxiety disorder.

Specific Phobias (phobia-related disorders)

A phobia is an intense fear of—or aversion to—specific objects or situations. People with phobias experience excessive fear compared to the actual threat posed by the circumstances. Some examples of specific phobias include the fear of flying, heights, or needles.

Panic Disorder

People with panic disorder have frequent and unexpected panic attacks–sudden periods of intense fear, discomfort, or sense of losing control even when there is no clear danger or trigger. People with panic disorder worry about when the next attack will happen and actively try to prevent future attacks by avoiding places, situations, or behaviors they associate with panic attacks. 

Agoraphobia

People with agoraphobia have an intense fear of two or more of the following situations: using public transportation, being in open or enclosed spaces, standing in line or being in a crowd, or being outside the home alone. People with agoraphobia often avoid these situations, in part, because they think it might be difficult to leave. In the most severe form of agoraphobia, an individual can become housebound.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) usually involves a persistent feeling of anxiety or dread, which can interfere with daily life. It is not the same as occasionally worrying about things or experiencing anxiety due to stressful events. People living with GAD experience frequent anxiety for months, if not years.

Social Anxiety Disorder

Social anxiety disorder is an intense, persistent fear of being watched and judged by others. The fear of social situations may feel so intense that it seems beyond their control. For some people, this fear may get in the way of going to work, attending school, or doing everyday things.

Separation Anxiety Disorder

Separation anxiety is often thought of as something that only children deal with, however, adults can also be diagnosed with separation anxiety disorder. People who have separation anxiety disorder have fears about parting from people to whom they are attached. They often worry that something will happen to their attachment figures while they are separated. People with separation anxiety may have nightmares about being separated from attachment figures or experience physical symptoms when separation occurs or is anticipated.

Signs and Symptoms of Anxiety Disorders

Each of the anxiety disorders is distinct in some ways, but they all share the same hallmark features:

  • Irrational and excessive fear.
  • Apprehensive and tense feelings.
  • Difficulty managing daily tasks and/or distress related to these tasks.
  • Anxious thoughts (e.g., “I’m losing control” ).
  • Anxious predictions (e.g., “I’m going to fumble my words and humiliate myself”)
  • Anxious beliefs (e.g., “Only weak people get anxious”)
  • Avoidance of feared situations (e.g., driving)
  • Avoidance of activities that elicit sensations similar to those experienced when anxious (e.g., exercise)
  • Subtle avoidances (behaviors that aim to distract the person, e.g., talking more during periods of anxiety)
  • Safety behaviors (habits to minimize anxiety and feel “safer,” e.g., always having a cell phone on hand to call for help)
  • Excessive physical reactions relative to the context (e.g., heart racing and feeling short of breath in response to being at the mall).

Note: The physical symptoms of anxiety may be mistaken for symptoms of a physical illness, such as a heart attack.

What Causes an Anxiety Disorder?

Anxiety disorders seem to be brought on by a mix of biological causes, psychological variables, and difficult life experiences. These include:

  • Stressful or traumatic life events.
  • Family history of anxiety disorders.
  • Childhood development issues.
  • Alcohol, medications, or illegal substances.
  • Other medical or psychiatric problems.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Anxiety disorders can be treated. It’s essential to seek help if you’re concerned about anxiety in your life.

Several factors determine whether the anxiety warrants the attention of mental health professionals, including:

  • The degree of distress caused by the anxiety symptoms.
  • The extent to which the anxiety symptoms affect the person’s ability to work, study, socialize and manage daily tasks
  • The context in which the anxiety occurs.

Psychological treatments, such as relaxation training, meditation, biofeedback and stress management, can help with anxiety disorders. Many people also benefit from supportive counseling or couples or family therapy. However, experts agree that the most effective treatment for anxiety disorders is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Medications have also been proven effective, and many people receive CBT and medication in combination.

If you think you may have an anxiety disorder, getting a physical examination from a healthcare provider may help them diagnose your symptoms and find the right treatment.

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