What Is Anxiety? The Symptoms, Types, Causes and Treatments You Need to Know About

Dealing with anxiety disorders like OCD and agoraphobia can be challenging, but relief is possible

By Outlier Staff
April 29, 2020

Though everyone feels anxious from time to time, an anxiety disorder is something else completely. Anxiety is our body’s response to stress, but for someone with an anxiety disorder, their nervousness, fears and worrying don’t go away once a situation has passed. In fact, a person’s anxiety symptoms can get to the point of interrupting their daily lives.

Approximately 40 million adults in America have an anxiety disorder, making it the most common mental illness in the country. People with an anxiety disorder also frequently live with clinical depression: around one-half of the people diagnosed with depression are also diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. In most cases, anxiety disorders are treatable — but only about 36.9 percent of those with the mental health condition receive treatment. Here is what you need to know about the signs, symptoms, types, causes and treatments of anxiety disorders.

Signs and symptoms of anxiety disorders

There are a range of signs and symptoms of anxiety disorders. Every case is different, and a person doesn’t necessarily need to experience all the symptoms in order to receive an anxiety diagnosis. According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms of an anxiety disorder could include:

  • Feeling nervous, restless or tense
  • Having a sense of impending danger, panic or doom
  • Having an increased heart rate
  • Breathing rapidly (hyperventilation)
  • Sweating
  • Trembling
  • Feeling weak or tired
  • Trouble concentrating or thinking about anything other than the present worry
  • Having trouble sleeping
  • Experiencing gastrointestinal (GI) problems
  • Having difficulty controlling worry
  • Having the urge to avoid things that trigger anxiety

Types of anxiety disorders

There are several types of anxiety disorders, and you can have more than one anxiety disorder at a time. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), there are three main categories of anxiety disorders: generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and phobia-related disorders. In addition, the American Psychiatric Association classifies obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) as an anxiety disorder. Here is what you need to know about each type:

Generalized anxiety disorder

People with generalized anxiety disorder live with constant, persistent and excessive feelings of worry, triggered by stressful events, as well as routine activities in everyday life. To get a diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder, a person typically has anxiety symptoms for at least six months. Generalized anxiety disorder can impact numerous areas of your life, including your work, school, and social interactions. As the Mayo Clinic explains, with generalized anxiety disorder, “the worry is out of proportion to the actual circumstance, is difficult to control and affects how you feel physically.”

Panic disorder

Living with a panic disorder means having frequent, sometimes serious panic attacks. According to the NIMH, “panic attacks are sudden periods of intense fear that come on quickly and reach their peak within minutes.” The symptoms of a panic attack include feelings of impending doom, shortness of breath, chest pain, and/or heart palpitations. Panic attacks can either be brought on by a specific trigger — like a highly stressful situation — or occur for no apparent reason. Given how intense panic attacks are, those living with panic disorder frequently become anxious about having a disruptive panic attack in public.  

Phobia-related anxiety disorders

There are several different types of phobia-related anxiety disorders, centering on the fear of a specific situation, activity, or object. “Although it can be realistic to be anxious in some circumstances, the fear people with phobias feel is out of proportion to the actual danger caused by the situation or object,” the NIMH explains. Some of the most common types of phobia-related panic disorders include:

  • Agoraphobia: anxiety caused by fear and avoidance of places or situations that might cause someone to panic and make them feel trapped, helpless or embarrassed.
  • Social anxiety disorder: a fear and avoidance of social situations because a person is afraid of feeling embarrassed, self-conscious, and/or concerned about being judged or viewed negatively by others.
  • Separation anxiety disorder: a fear of being separated from a specific person and being alone. Separation anxiety disorder can affect children or adults.
  • Specific phobias: anxiety caused by a certain object or situations, including flying, public speaking, heights, snakes, needles, the dark, the dentist, vomit, driving, and blood.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder

OCD is a type of anxiety disorder in which a person has recurring, unwanted thoughts or ideas (obsessions) that may make them feel driven to do something repetitively (compulsions). Though OCD manifests in different ways, it is best known for repetitive behaviors like hand washing, checking on things or cleaning, which are done to the point of affecting a person’s everyday life and ability to function. Others with OCD don’t experience the compulsive symptoms, but are plagued by disruptive, intrusive thoughts throughout the day.

Causes of anxiety disorders

At this point, researchers don’t know what, precisely, causes anxiety. While in some cases, an anxiety disorder can be brought on by a traumatic event, genetics may also play a role. According to the NIMH, some of the potential causes and risk factors of anxiety disorders include:

  • Temperamental traits of shyness or behavioral inhibition in childhood
  • Exposure to stressful and negative life or environmental events in early childhood or adulthood
  • A history of anxiety or other mental illnesses in biological relatives
  • Some physical health conditions, such as thyroid problems or heart arrhythmias, or caffeine or other substances/medications, can produce or aggravate anxiety symptoms; a physical health examination is helpful in the evaluation of a possible anxiety disorder.

Treatments for anxiety disorders

Like depression, there is no single treatment for anxiety disorders that works for everyone. Typically, medication, therapy or a combination of both are used to treat anxiety disorders. A variety of medications are used to treat anxiety disorders, including antidepressants, beta blockers, sedatives, or anxiety-specific drugs like buspirone. It may take a few attempts before someone with an anxiety disorder finds a medication, or combination of medications, that are most effective for treating their symptoms. 

Therapy — also known as talk therapy or psychological counseling — is another important tool for treating anxiety disorders. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is the most common and most effective type of therapy for anxiety disorders. As the Mayo Clinic explains: “CBT focuses on teaching you specific skills to improve your symptoms and gradually return to the activities you’ve avoided because of anxiety.” Exposure therapy — when a person is gradually exposed to an object or situation that triggers their anxiety — is a type of CBT and is frequently used to treat anxiety disorders. 

Finally, there are alternative therapies that some people find helpful in treating their anxiety disorder. The idea behind alternative — also referred to as integrative or natural — therapy is to provide relief for a person without experiencing the potential side effects of medication. Examples of alternative treatments and home remedies for anxiety disorders include:

Anxiety resources

If you are experiencing the symptoms of an anxiety disorder and need help or support, talk to your health care provider about how you’re feeling. There are also a number of resources available if you or someone you know needs help immediately. There are local and national organizations that can provide support in an emergency situation, including:  

National Suicide Prevention Hotline: Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the free 24-hour online chat to connect with counselors and receive mental health support.

National Domestic Violence Hotline: If you’re experiencing domestic violence, call 1-800-799-7233  or visit the organization’s website for assistance and resources.

Crisis Text Line: Text MHA to 741741 and you’ll be connected to a trained Crisis Counselor. Crisis Text Line provides free, text-based support 24/7.

Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN): Call 1-800-656-4673 or visit the RAINN website for 24-hour chat support.

The Trevor Project: Call 1-866-488-7386 or text START to 678678. A national 24-hour, toll free confidential suicide hotline for LGBTQ youth.

Outlier Disclaimer

This site is for educational purposes and not a substitute for professional medical care by a doctor or otherwise qualified medical professional. The information provided by Outlier Magazine is on the understanding that it does not constitute medical or other professional advice or services.

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