What is anxiety disorder?

Most people worry from time to time. But when these worries affect your daily life, it could suggest a problem called anxiety - or anxiety disorder.

Anxiety is usually diagnosed by a mental health professional. It causes persistent, intense or excessive feelings of worry or fear. It happens when the body has a fight-or-flight response even when there’s no immediate danger. You might find your fear and worries affect everyday life events like work, school, and relationships. Anxiety may cause you to avoid certain places and people.

There are several types of anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder (social phobia), separation anxiety disorder, and phobias.

Symptoms of Anxiety

Common symptoms of anxiety:

  • Feeling nervous, restless or tense (wound-up)
  • Having a sense of impending danger, panic or doom
  • Having an increased heart rate
  • Breathing rapidly (hyperventilation)
  • Sweating
  • Trembling and shaking
  • Feeling weak or tired easily
  • Trouble concentrating or thinking about anything other than the present worry
  • Having trouble sleeping
  • Experiencing stomach problems
  • Having difficulty controlling your worries
  • Having the urge to avoid things that trigger anxiety
  • Muscle tension

Panic Disorder

Panic disorder or panic attacks are sudden periods of intense fear that come on quickly and reach their peak within minutes of onset. Panic attacks can occur unexpectedly or can be brought on by a trigger, such as a feared object or social situations.

Symptoms of Panic Disorder (Panic Attacks)

  • Heart palpitations, a pounding heartbeat, or an accelerated heart rate and chest pains (feels like a heart attack)
  • Sweating
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Sensations of shortness of breath, smothering, or choking
  • Feelings of impending doom
  • Feelings of being out of control

Other forms of anxiety

Phobias

Phobias are fears when you're exposed to a specific object or daily life situation. You may try to avoid the situation. Phobias will provoke panic attacks in some people. Some examples of specific phobias include the fear of:

  • Flying
  • Heights
  • Tall structures (buildings)
  • Specific animals, such as dogs, cats, or snakes
  • Injections
  • Blood
  • Spiders or insects
  • Small spaces
  • Open spaces
  • Crowds

Social Anxiety Disorder (or social phobia)

People with social anxiety disorder have a general intense fear of social or performance situations due to feelings of embarrassment, self-consciousness and concern about being judged or viewed negatively by others.

Agoraphobia

People with agoraphobia have an intense fear of two or more of the following situations:

  • Avoiding using public transportation
  • Being in open spaces
  • Being in enclosed spaces
  • Standing in line
  • Being in a crowd
  • Being outside of the home alone

Causes of Anxiety

People can experience anxiety for all sorts of reasons. And doctors don’t fully understand what causes the condition. In some cases, anxiety may be linked to underlying health problems. If your doctor thinks your anxiety may have a medical cause, they may order further tests. Some examples of medical causes are:

  • Heart disease
  • Diabetes
  • Thyroid problems (hyperthyroidism)
  • Respiratory disorders, like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or asthma
  • Substance abuse or withdrawals
  • Withdrawal from alcohol, anti-anxiety medications (benzodiazepines) or other medications
  • Chronic pain or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • Rare tumors that release certain fight-or-flight hormones

Diagnosis

A mental health professional will ask about your symptoms and determine whether you have anxiety. They will use the criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), published by the American Psychiatric Association, to help make the right diagnosis.

Treatment

The main treatments for anxiety disorders are psychotherapy and medications. These different treatment plans will help you to get back to your daily activities.

Psychotherapy

Known as talking therapy or psychological counseling, psychotherapy involves working with a therapist or counselor to help reduce your anxiety symptoms.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive behavioral therapy is the most effective form of psychotherapy for anxiety disorders. It focuses on teaching you specific skills to reduce or eliminate your symptoms. This therapy will help you to gradually return to the activities you may have avoided. CBT includes exposure therapy, in which you gradually encounter the object or situation that triggers your anxiety. This allows you to build confidence that you can manage the situation and symptoms.

Medications

Certain antidepressants are used to treat anxiety disorders. An anti-anxiety medication called buspirone may be prescribed. In some circumstances, your doctor may prescribe other types of medications, such as sedatives, also called benzodiazepines, or beta blockers. These medications are for short-term relief of anxiety symptoms and are not intended to be used for a long-term treatment plan.

FAQs

What causes anxiety?

The exact cause of anxiety is not well understood. Experts believe it’s often caused by a combination of factors. Anxiety can be caused by environmental factors like social situations or specific objects (phobias). Experiences such as traumatic events might trigger anxiety disorders in some people. A tendency to anxiety disorders may occur in families for genetic reasons. A mental health professional will help to determine your causes for anxiety.

Can anxiety be cured?

Talking therapies or medication can often successfully treat anxiety. Most people feel better in a relatively short time after a combination of the two. The best treatment for you will depend on what type of anxiety you have and its severity. Speak with a mental health professional to see what treatment they recommend.

Can anxiety kill me?

Anxiety can feel like a heart attack or other serious condition, but it will not cause you to die. However, panic attacks are serious and need to be treated. If you find yourself experiencing any of these symptoms on a regular basis, contact your doctor or mental health professional for further help.

Is anxiety a mental illness?

Most people experience feelings of worry from time to time. But anxiety disorders are a group of mental illnesses that cause constant and overwhelming worry and fear. These difficult feelings can make you avoid work, school, family get-togethers, and other social situations that might trigger or worsen your symptoms.

How common are anxiety disorders?

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental disorders and affect nearly 30 percent of adults at some point in their lives. The good news is anxiety disorders are very treatable. A number of effective treatments are available like talk therapy and medications.

Does talk therapy work?

The truth about talk therapy is that it really does work. Scientific studies have consistently shown that behavioral and emotional interventions work as well, if not better, than medication to treat anxiety, depression, and mental health issues like obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

What are the symptoms of panic attacks and anxiety?

Symptoms of anxiety and panic attacks are:

  • Sense of impending doom or danger
  • Fear of loss of control or death
  • Rapid, pounding heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Shortness of breath or tightness in your throat
  • Chills
  • Hot flashes
  • Nausea
  • Abdominal cramping
  • Chest pain
  • Headache
  • Dizziness, lightheadedness or faintness
  • Numbness or tingling sensation
  • Feeling of unreality or detachment

Can you have agoraphobia without panic disorder?

Agoraphobia typically develops as a result of having panic disorder. In a small percentage of cases, agoraphobia can develop by itself without being triggered by panic attacks. Agoraphobia can be caused by traumatic experiences, such as bullying or abuse. See your mental health professional if you think you are suffering from agoraphobia.

Can anxiety go away without treatment?

In most cases, anxiety will not go away on its own without treatment. Most people with anxiety disorders never fully eliminate their anxiety. But, they can learn how to control their feelings and reduce the severity of their worries.

The information provided is for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Seek the advice of a doctor with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never delay seeking or disregard professional medical advice because of something you have read here.