Anxiety DisordersTypes, Symptoms, & Treatments
Experiencing occasional feelings of nervousness, worry, or fear is normal, especially when they arise in response to stressful, unfamiliar, or challenging situations. However, frequent, regular, intense, and lasting (almost daily for 6 months) feelings of nervousness can signal an underlying anxiety disorder, especially when they interrupt a person’s ability to function normally.
Anxiety disorders describe a category of mental health conditions that share common symptoms, but have different patterns of onset, duration, and frequency. Many anxiety disorders are distinguished by the specific events and circumstances that trigger the symptoms or “false alarms” described above.
Some of the more common types of anxiety disorders include:4
- Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD): Symptoms of anxiety triggered by a wide range of circumstances, or sometimes for unknown reasons.
- Social anxiety disorder: Symptoms of anxiety which occur in specific social interactions or settings where a person is afraid of being judged or rejected.
- Specific phobias: Intense symptoms of anxiety triggered by a specific thing (i.e. fear of spiders), situations (i.e. heights), or activities (i.e. public speaking).
- Panic disorder: An anxiety disorder characterized by panic attacks and intense fear about the possibility of future attacks.
- Anxiety disorders related to an underlying health issue or are related to the effects of a prescribed or illicit substance
- Separation Anxiety which primarily affects children (but can happen in adults) and is characterized by extreme anxiety when separated from loved ones (usually caregivers)
- Unspecified Anxiety Disorders which includes some symptoms of anxiety that do not match other known anxiety disorders but do cause significant distress or impairment.
- Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD): Not technically an anxiety disorder, but characterized by high levels of anxiety, intrusive thoughts, and ritualistic behavior
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): Not an anxiety disorder, but involves symptoms of anxiety, avoidance, mood problems, and recurrent memories following a traumatic experience
There isn’t one specific cause for developing an anxiety disorder. Experts believe that the interaction of genetic vulnerability with stressful life events can trigger an anxiety condition. A person can also experience anxiety from having an underlying medical condition, taking certain medications, or a combination of any of these factors.9
In some cases, an anxiety disorder can be caused by another underlying medical condition. In fact, there are certain medical conditions known to produce anxiety symptoms, such as hyperthyroidism, cardiovascular disease, asthma, encephalitis, and more. By the same token, having a chronic illness can cause stress related to the implications of the medical issue thus triggering anxiety. Additionally, anxiety can be a common symptom in other mental disorders like depression or bipolar disorder.4
Evidence suggests that unhealthy environments, stressful life events (death of a loved one, divorce, financial issues etc.), growing up in an unsafe environment, and experiencing childhood abuse are strongly linked to anxiety disorders. These conditions amplify the likelihood of developing anxiety, and the risks can be even higher for those with a genetic predisposition.10
As with other mental health conditions, anxiety disorders typically have a genetic component. This means that having a family member with anxiety, or any other psychological disorder, can predispose you to developing an anxiety disorder—especially if other risk factors are involved.10
Some people can experience nervousness, anxiety, panic symptoms as a side effect from taking certain medications. If the person already has anxiety, these medications can make their symptoms worse. Medications that can provoke anxiety symptoms include pain relievers, anticonvulsants, oral contraceptives, antidepressants, and some over-the-counter medicines. It’s always a good idea to check with your doctor or pharmacist and read medication labels to learn if your prescriptions can cause anxiety.
Who Is at Greatest Risk for Anxiety Disorders?
There are certain populations that are vulnerable and/or life circumstances that increase the chances for developing an anxiety disorder. These include:6
- Adolescents between 13 and 18 years old
- People with a history of or an existing of mental illness, especially depression
- People with substance use/alcohol problems
- Individuals with certain personality traits
- Those with history of childhood trauma, particularly sexual abuse
- Having a family history of mental illness
- Certain stressful life events: Financial worries, work stress, having a chronic illness, death of a loved one, etc.
Treatment for Anxiety Disorders
- Mindfulness and meditation practices can promote relaxation, decrease stress, and distance people from anxious thoughts
- An active lifestyle that includes regular exercise helps to balance neurochemicals and stress hormones linked to anxiety
- A consistent sleep routine that includes 7-8 hours per night helps reduce stress, improve focus and performance, and prevent health and mental health issues
- Cutting back on caffeine can also make a difference for those suffering with anxiety disorders, as caffeine’s stimulating properties can induce anxiety
- Regularly spending time with friends or family is an essential part of wellness, decreasing risk and severity for both physical and mental health issues
- Enjoying offline time is another lifestyle change that can help reduce anxiety, as some people might find that work emails, social media, or other notifications cause stress and anxiety
- Introducing positive thoughts can help to build new thinking habits that counteract stress and anxiety
- Practicing self-compassion through kind self-talk and consistent self-care activities has shown to be helpful in reducing a range of mental health issues, including anxiety
- Learning more about anxiety online or from a professional can be helpful in understanding signs and symptoms, helping people feel more in control of their symptoms
- Finding supportive people to talk to about anxiety (friends, a therapist, or a support group) can also help people have an outlet and feel less alone in their experience