What is anxiety?

If you have an anxiety disorder, you experience fear or worry that does not go away and/or intensifies over time. Worries or fears that subside over time are normal.

Anxiety disorders are more serious and can seriously impact quality of life for the person suffering from the condition. With effective treatment, people with an anxiety disorder can fully get back to a normal life.

Types of anxiety disorders

There are several types of anxiety disorders including:

  • General anxiety disorder — people who suffer from general anxiety disorder feel excessive worry without reason.
  • Obsessive-compulsive — obsessive-compulsive disorders are characterized by an irrational obsession to do something such as keep the house clean.
  • Panic disorder — if you have frequent panic attacks, characterized by extreme fear that strikes for no reason, you could have a panic disorder.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder — PTSD is an anxiety disorder that occurs after a traumatic event such as a horrible car accident.
  • Social phobia — also called social anxiety disorder, is when you obsessively worry about what people think about you or how to manage social situations.
  • Separation anxiety disorder — many infants, toddlers or young children experience separation anxiety disorder that is related to the separation from a parent.

Causes of anxiety disorders

Experts are unsure of what causes anxiety disorders. Some factors that could contribute to the development of an anxiety disorder include:

  • Genetics — mental illnesses, such as anxiety disorders, can be passed down through the genes.
  • Environmental stress — day-to-day stress caused by situations or environment can lead to an anxiety disorder.
  • Changes in brain function — a faulty circuit in the brain may lead to uncontrolled fear or anxiety.

Risk factors for anxiety disorders

Factors that can increase a person’s risk for developing an anxiety disorder include:

  • Experiencing a traumatic event such as the death of a parent
  • Functioning under extreme stress
  • Having other mental health conditions
  • Experimenting with drugs or alcohol
  • Having a family history of an anxiety disorder

Symptoms of anxiety disorders

General symptoms of an anxiety disorder include:

  • Extreme fear
  • Problems sleeping
  • Trouble breathing
  • Abnormal heart rhythm
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Tense muscles
  • Gastrointestinal distress
  • Avoiding anything that can cause fear or worry
  • Feeling constantly fatigued
  • Sweating

Diagnosis of anxiety disorders

An anxiety disorder can be diagnosed by a primary care doctor. In severe cases, you will be referred to a mental health specialist (psychiatrist) for follow-up and treatment. 

To diagnose your specific condition, the physician will perform a psychological evaluation and compare your symptoms to the criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (American Psychiatric Association).

Treatment for anxiety disorders

Your doctor will determine the most appropriate treatment protocol depending on the severity of your condition. 

The primary treatment options for an anxiety disorder include:

  • Self-care — many patients with mild to moderate anxiety can treat themselves with exercise, positive affirmations, relaxation techniques, a support network and stress management.
  • Medications — antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, beta-blockers, tricyclics and benzodiazepines are medications that can be used to treat anxiety disorders.
  • Behavioral therapy — cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is used to treat anxiety disorders such as social anxiety, phobias, general anxiety disorders and panic disorders; your therapist will address any negative self-talk or patterns to help alleviate the symptoms of the condition.
  • Psychotherapy — counseling with a therapist is often an effective way to relieve the symptoms of an anxiety disorder; your counselor may work with you to develop skills that allow you to return to activities that you once avoided.

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