What Are Anxiety Disorders? Types, Causes, Symptoms & Treatment
Last Updated: November 6, 2023
Everyone experiences stress and worry occasionally, but for some people, worries are excessive and make it difficult to function in daily life. For people with normal worry, symptoms subside once a stressful or negative event has passed. On the other hand, people with anxiety disorders do not stop worrying when a stressful event is over. They experience persistent anxiety symptoms and may even worry needlessly about everyday events that do not commonly cause distress for most people.
The good news is that with treatment, it is possible to overcome symptoms of an anxiety disorder so it does not negatively affect daily life. Many types of anxiety disorders exist, and they can all be treated.
What Is Anxiety?
Anxiety occurs when people experience fear or worry in response to a situation or stimuli. In the mental health field, anxiety disorders are conditions that cause persistent fear or worry that interferes with daily life. People with anxiety disorders worry excessively, to the point that it changes their behavior and makes it difficult for them to be successful at work or school and maintain interpersonal relationships.
While anxiety is a general term that refers to worry and fear, different anxiety disorders are based on the root of the fear. For instance, people with generalized anxiety disorder experience excessive fear about everyday events. In contrast, people with panic disorder live with sudden periods of intense fear, during which they feel like they are losing control.
Types of Anxiety Disorders
More than one type of anxiety disorder exists. If you or someone you love experiences anxiety symptoms, you may meet the criteria for one of the following diagnosable anxiety disorders.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
GAD involves excessive worry over everyday events and extends beyond normal symptoms of stress or worry. Those with GAD experience persistent anxiety and know their worry is excessive. Still, they struggle with ongoing anxiety symptoms, including:
- Sleep disturbances
- Concentration problems
Those with a specific phobia have anxiety or fear about certain objects or situations, such as animals or flying in a plane. Someone with a phobia will avoid the object or situation that leads to the fear or experience extreme distress when encountering it.
Panic disorder is diagnosed in those who experience intense episodes of fear called panic attacks. These attacks are sudden and occur without any legitimate danger. During a panic attack, a person develops a sense of impending doom, feels out of control and experiences symptoms, including:
- A racing heart
- Chest pain
Social Anxiety Disorder
People with symptoms of social anxiety disorder tend to avoid social situations because they have an intense fear of being negatively judged or evaluated by others. They fear embarrassment in situations where others may evaluate their performance, such as at work or in public speaking situations.
Separation Anxiety Disorder
Separation anxiety disorder occurs in people afraid of being separated from those they love. It can affect children and adults, and people with the condition often fear something bad will happen to their loved ones while apart. For example, a child with separation anxiety disorder may worry their mother will be harmed while the child is at school.
Selective mutism is a rare disorder associated with anxiety and often occurs with another anxiety disorder. Those with selective mutism have adequate language skills but fail to speak in certain social situations. This disorder usually occurs in early childhood and is linked to extreme shyness and clinging behavior.
Causes of Anxiety
The exact cause of an anxiety disorder can vary from person to person and also depend on the type of anxiety disorder. In general, genetic and environmental factors increase the risk that someone will develop an anxiety disorder. People who have a relative with an anxiety disorder or another mental health condition are at a higher risk of developing anxiety, demonstrating a genetic component to anxiety disorders. Environmental factors like stressful life events can also increase the risk of anxiety.
Beyond general risk factors, some common triggers may cause anxiety-related symptoms to appear. While these can vary based on the specific anxiety disorder, the following can be triggers:
- Being in social situations, like a large event or party
- Exposure to certain animals, such as spiders or dogs
- Separation from loved ones
- Giving a public presentation
- Everyday stressors like paying bills or cleaning the house
- Developing a health condition like a thyroid disorder
- Exposure to specific situations, such as flying on a plane
Recognizing Anxiety Symptoms
Just as triggers for anxiety can vary based on the specific anxiety disorder, symptoms can also differ. However, some general emotional, behavioral and physical symptoms are associated with anxiety.
Emotional Symptoms of Anxiety
People with anxiety disorders may show the following emotional symptoms:
- Excessive worrying or fear
- Feeling “on edge”
- Feeling that something terrible is about to happen
- Having a sense of losing control
Behavioral Symptoms of Anxiety
As a result of anxiety, people may engage in the following behaviors:
- Avoiding social interaction
- Having a difficult time speaking to or interacting with others
- Avoiding certain places or situations
- Startling easily
- Showing signs of sleep disturbance
- Difficulty concentrating
- Refusing to attend school for children
- Missing work because of symptoms
- Speaking in an overly soft voice
- Avoiding making eye contact with other people
Physical Symptoms of Anxiety
Anxiety can also manifest in the form of physical symptoms that include:
- Unexplained pain
- Sore muscles
- Racing heart
- Tingling sensations
- Visibly Trembling
- Chest pain
If you think you may have an anxiety disorder, it’s important to reach out to a professional for diagnosis and treatment. A physician with experience treating mental health disorders can diagnose anxiety disorders. If your doctor is not experienced in treating anxiety, they can refer you to a mental health professional, like a psychologist or clinical social worker, who can make a diagnosis.
The professional making a diagnosis will gather information about your health history, family situation and current symptoms to determine if you meet criteria for one of the disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. They may use symptom checklists or assessment tools, such as questionnaires or surveys, to clarify which symptoms you’re experiencing and whether they meet the diagnostic criteria for an anxiety disorder.
Anxiety in Numbers
If you’re experiencing symptoms of an anxiety disorder, you’re not alone. According to the American Psychiatric Association, nearly 30% of adults have an anxiety disorder at some point.
Consider the following statistics related to the prevalence of anxiety disorders. These statistics indicate what percentage of people in the U.S. experience a particular anxiety disorder within a given year:
- Specific phobias: 8–12% of the adult population
- Social anxiety disorder: 7% of the adult population
- Panic disorder: 2–3% of the adult population
- Generalized anxiety disorder: 2.9% of the adult population
- Separation anxiety disorder: 4% of children, 1.6% of teens and up to 1.9% of adults
Anxiety’s Toll on Mental Health
Untreated anxiety disorders can negatively impact overall mental health and daily functioning significantly. For example, excessive worry can interfere with enjoying everyday activities, such as hobbies and time with friends, and make it difficult to maintain relationships, succeed at school or hold down a job.
The negative impact of anxiety has been well-studied. In fact, researchers have found that anxiety disorders are linked to a lower quality of life, demonstrating that these conditions are more severe than simply worrying from time to time.
Anxiety Treatment Options
The good news is that you can learn to manage anxiety with treatment and improve your overall quality of life. Anxiety disorders are typically treated with talk therapy, medication or both.
A common therapy approach used in treating anxiety is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). This approach helps people identify distorted or unhelpful thinking patterns that contribute to anxiety and replace them with more realistic and helpful ways of thinking.
Beyond therapy, anxiety disorders are often treated with a class of medications called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Other medications used to treat anxiety include buspirone, which is in a class of its own, and benzodiazepines, which can lead to dependence with long-term use. Your doctor will help you determine the best medication for your unique needs if medication is required.
Professional treatment benefits anxiety disorders, but self-help strategies and stress-management techniques can also make the condition more manageable. You might consider:
- Attending a support group
- Practicing meditation
- Making time for other activities that you find relaxing
- Exercising regularly
- Avoiding caffeine if it worsens your symptoms
Take the First Step to Recovery
If you’re experiencing anxiety symptoms, reaching out for professional support is helpful. You might consider talking with your doctor about a referral to a mental health professional. You can also search online for counseling services in your area.
For those seeking behavioral health services in the Missouri area, The Recovery Village Kansas City is here to help. We offer a full continuum of treatment options for mental health disorders and co-occurring addictions, including medical detox, residential treatment, partial hospitalization programming and intensive outpatient services. Contact one of our Recovery Advocates today to get started.
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National Institute of Mental Health. “Any Anxiety Disorder.” Accessed October 3, 2023.
National Institute of Mental Health. “Generalized Anxiety Disorder: When Worry Gets Out of Control.” 2022. Accessed October 3, 2023.
American Psychiatric Association. “What are Anxiety Disorders?” June 2023. Accessed October 4, 2023.
Kasteenpohja, Teija, et al. “Outcome of depressive and anxiety disorders among young adults: Results from the Longitudinal Finnish Health 2011 Study.” Nordic Journal of Psychiatry, 2018. Accessed October 4, 2023.
Bandelow, Borwin; Michaelis, Sophie; Wedekind, Dirk. “Treatment of Anxiety Disorders.” Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, June 2017. Accessed October 4, 2023.