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The 4 Different Levels and Stages of Anxiety

Last Updated: November 6, 2023

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Most people are familiar with the term “anxiety,” but not everyone experiences it the same way. Some people may have normal anxiety in response to a life stressor, whereas others experience more severe anxiety that meets criteria for a mental health disorder. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 19.1% of U.S. adults have an anxiety disorder within a given year, and 31.1% experience an anxiety disorder at some point during their lives. 

When people have symptoms of anxiety, it can fall into one of four levels: mild, moderate, severe or panic level. This is discussed in more detail below. 

Article at a Glance

  • An anxiety disorder is a mental health condition that causes severe fear or worry that interferes with daily functioning. 
  • There are a variety of different anxiety disorders; some may cause more severe impairment than others.
  • Genetic factors can make someone more likely to develop severe anxiety. 
  • Anxiety disorders can be effectively treated with therapy and/or medication. 
  • Self-care strategies can be beneficial for managing milder forms of anxiety. 

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What Is Anxiety?

Anxiety refers to fear or worry that occurs in response to a stimulus or situation. In the mental health realm, anxiety disorders are conditions that cause persistent fear or worry that interferes with daily life. People with anxiety disorders experience extreme concern, severe enough to change their behavior. This worry makes it difficult for them to be successful with work, school and maintaining healthy relationships with others.

While anxiety is a general term that refers to worry and fear, the different anxiety disorders vary 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. It is essential to understand that when a person has an anxiety disorder, they are experiencing more than everyday worry about stressful events.

Recent data show that anxiety is common in the U.S. Within a given year, 19.1% of adults have an anxiety disorder, and 31.1% experience such a disorder at some point during their lifetimes. Anxiety is even more common in teens, with 31.9% experiencing anxiety within a given year.

Levels of Anxiety

Anxiety disorders are common, but there is a wide variation in symptom severity. Some people experience milder impairment, whereas others live with full-blown panic symptoms that significantly interfere with daily functioning. 

The severity of anxiety can depend upon several factors, including the type of anxiety disorder a person has. For instance, research shows that panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder are likely to cause severe role impairment. Furthermore, genetic factors can increase the risk of severe anxiety. 

The four levels of anxiety classifications come from the impairment and distress a person experiences daily. 

Mild Anxiety

About half of people with an anxiety disorder experience mild levels of distress. 43.5% of adults with an anxiety disorder have mild anxiety. Individuals who fall under this category may sometimes have unhealthy coping mechanisms, but symptoms do not often interfere significantly with daily functioning. 

Moderate Anxiety

Moderate anxiety occurs in 33.7% of people with anxiety disorders. When anxiety is moderate, it is often more persistent than mild anxiety. People with moderate anxiety symptoms may be distressed with daily activities like working or interacting with others. They may benefit from taking medication to manage symptoms or talking with a therapist to develop coping strategies. 

Severe Anxiety

Severe anxiety, which is more debilitating than mild or moderate symptoms, is seen in 22.8% of people with anxiety disorders. A person with severe anxiety may require intensive mental health services, and maintaining a job or having healthy relationships can be difficult. 

Compared to those with milder forms of anxiety, those with severe impairment may meet more diagnostic criteria for an anxiety disorder, meaning they show more symptoms. Severe anxiety is also associated with co-occurring depression. 

Panic Level Anxiety

In extreme cases, anxiety can make a person feel out of control; in this case, they may have a panic attack. A panic attack refers to an extreme period of fear during which a person experiences symptoms such as a racing heart, sweating, trembling, chest pain and a sense that something terrible is about to happen. 

These attacks are unexpected and can occur with no clear danger or trigger. They often last just a few minutes. When panic attacks are recurrent, a person is diagnosed with panic disorder. Sometimes, a specific fear, such as the fear of being trapped, can trigger a panic attack. In the case of agoraphobia, for instance, a person may have a panic attack when riding on public transportation, attending a crowded event or being in a closed space. 

Managing Anxiety

Anxiety can be controlled using a variety of self-help strategies, as well as professional interventions. In cases of mild anxiety, a person may be able to handle it by utilizing a self-care strategy. 

For example, research shows that exercise is beneficial for alleviating anxiety symptoms. If your symptoms are mild, physical activities like running or cycling may be sufficient for managing symptoms. In more severe forms of anxiety, exercise can complement professional treatment. 

Stress management strategies, such as progressive muscle relaxation (PMR), can also be beneficial for reducing anxiety symptoms, including panic. To practice PMR, focus on specific muscle groups, one at a time. Tense the muscle group, maintaining a contraction for 5 to 7 seconds.  Next, release and focus on the feeling of relaxation for 20 seconds before moving to the next muscle group. 

Mindfulness meditation can also be helpful for mild to moderate cases of anxiety, whether used on its own as a self-help strategy or as an add-on to professional interventions, such as therapy. Mindfulness interventions can help people to attend to the present moment rather than allowing their minds to wander to various worries. 

When self-care strategies are not enough, professional treatment can help you to overcome anxiety symptoms. Anxiety is usually treated with therapy, medication or a combination of the two. 

Consider the following treatment approaches: 

  • Therapy: A standard therapeutic modality used in treating anxiety is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). This method helps people identify distorted or unhelpful thinking patterns that contribute to anxiety and replace them with more realistic and helpful ways of thinking.
  • Medication: In addition to therapy, anxiety disorders are often treated with a class of medications called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Often used to treat depression, these medications also work for anxiety. 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. If medication is needed, your doctor will help you determine the best medication for your situation and level of anxiety. 

Seek Professional Anxiety Counseling at The Recovery Village Kansas City

If anxiety becomes unmanageable, it’s vital to seek professional treatment. For those seeking Missouri area mental health services, The Recovery Village Kansas City is here to help. We offer a full continuum of treatment options for mental health disorders that occur either on their own or alongside a substance use disorder. Our service offerings include medical detox, residential treatment, partial hospitalization programming and intensive outpatient services. Contact one of our recovery advocates today to schedule a therapy session for anxiety.


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