What is anxiety disorders?

Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety: Overview

Feeling worried or nervous is a normal part of daily life. Everyone frets or feels anxious from time to time. Mild to moderate anxiety can help you focus your attention, energy, and motivation. If anxiety is severe, you may feel helpless, confused, or very worried. But your feelings may be out of balance with how serious or likely the feared event might be. Overwhelming anxiety that interferes with daily life isn't normal. This type of anxiety may be a symptom of an anxiety disorder. Or it may be a symptom of another problem, such as depression.

Anxiety can cause physical and emotional symptoms. A specific situation or fear can cause some or all of these symptoms for a short time. When the situation passes, the symptoms usually go away.

Physical symptoms of anxiety include:

  • Trembling, twitching, or shaking.
  • A feeling of fullness in the throat or chest.
  • Breathlessness or a rapid heartbeat.
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness.
  • Sweaty or cold, clammy hands.
  • Feeling jumpy.
  • Muscle tension, aches, or soreness (myalgias).
  • Extreme tiredness.
  • Sleep problems, such as not being able to fall asleep or stay asleep, early waking, or feeling restless (not feeling rested when you wake up).

Anxiety affects the part of the brain that helps control how you communicate. This makes it harder to express yourself creatively or function well in relationships. Emotional symptoms of anxiety include:

  • Feeling restless, grouchy, or on edge or keyed up.
  • Worrying too much.
  • Fearing that something bad is going to happen. You may feel doomed.
  • Not being able to concentrate. You may feel like your mind goes blank.

Anxiety disorders

Anxiety disorders occur when people have both physical and emotional symptoms. These disorders interfere with how a person gets along with others. They also affect daily activities. Women are twice as likely as men to have problems with anxiety disorders. Examples include panic attacks, phobias, and generalized anxiety disorder. When you have generalized anxiety disorder, you feel worried and stressed about many everyday events and activities.

Often the cause of anxiety disorders isn't known. Many people who have them say that they've felt nervous and anxious all their lives. This problem can occur at any age. Children who have at least one parent with the diagnosis of depression are more than twice as likely to have an anxiety disorder than other children.

Anxiety disorders often occur with other problems, such as:

  • Mental health problems, like depression.
  • Substance use problems.
  • A physical problem, like heart or lung disease. A complete medical checkup may be needed before an anxiety disorder can be diagnosed.

Panic attacks

A panic attack is a sudden feeling of extreme anxiety or intense fear without a clear cause or when there is no danger. Panic attacks are common. They sometimes occur in otherwise healthy people. They usually last only a few minutes, but they may last longer. And for some people, the anxiety can get worse quickly during the attack.

Symptoms include feeling like you're dying or losing control of yourself, rapid breathing (hyperventilation), numbness or tingling of the hands or lips, and a racing heart. You may feel dizzy, sweaty, or shaky. Other symptoms include trouble breathing, chest pain or tightness, and an irregular heartbeat. These symptoms come on suddenly and without warning.

Sometimes symptoms of a panic attack are so intense that you may fear that you're having a heart attack. Many of the symptoms of a panic attack can occur with other illnesses, such as hyperthyroidism, coronary artery disease, or COPD. A complete medical checkup may be needed before an anxiety disorder can be diagnosed.

People who have repeated unexpected panic attacks and worry about the attacks are said to have a panic disorder.


Phobias are extreme and irrational fears that interfere with daily life. People with phobias have fears that are out of proportion to real danger. They're not able to control the fears.

Phobias are common. They sometimes occur with other conditions, such as panic disorder or Tourette's disorder. Most people deal with phobias by avoiding the situation or object that causes them to feel panic. This is called avoidance behavior.

A phobic disorder occurs when the avoidance behavior becomes so extreme that it interferes with your daily activities. There are three main types of phobic disorders:

  • Fear of being alone or in public places where help might not be available or escape is impossible (agoraphobia).
  • Fear of situations where you might be exposed to criticism by others (social phobia).
  • Fear of specific things (specific phobia).

Phobias can be treated to help reduce feelings of fear and anxiety.

Anxiety disorders

Anxiety disorders are a type of mental illness. Someone who has an anxiety disorder has severe anxiety that interferes with his or her life. Anxiety is an uncomfortable feeling of fear, uneasiness, or concern that something bad is about to happen.

Anxiety disorders include:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder. This involves several months of ongoing physical symptoms that occur along with anxiety.
  • Panic disorders. These involve repeated episodes of sudden fear and feelings of danger or impending doom, along with physical symptoms.

These disorders can be treated with medicines and/or counseling.

What are the symptoms of anxiety disorders?

Generalized anxiety disorder

Symptoms may include:

  • Feeling worried and stressed about many things almost every day.
  • Feeling tired or irritable. You may have a hard time concentrating.
  • Having headaches or muscle aches.
  • Having a hard time getting to sleep or staying asleep.

Panic disorder

You may have repeated panic attacks when there is no reason for feeling afraid. You may change your daily activities because you worry that you will have another attack.

Symptoms may include:

  • Intense fear, terror, or anxiety.
  • Trouble breathing or very fast breathing.
  • Chest pain or tightness.
  • A heartbeat that races or is not regular.

Social anxiety disorder

Symptoms may include:

  • Fear about a social situation, such as eating in front of others or speaking in public. You may worry a lot. Or you may be afraid that something bad will happen.
  • Anxiety that can cause you to blush, sweat, and feel shaky.
  • A heartbeat that is faster than normal.
  • A hard time focusing.


Symptoms may include:

  • More fear than most people of being around an object, being in a situation, or doing an activity. You might also be stressed about the chance of being around the thing you fear.
  • Worry about losing control, panicking, fainting, or having physical symptoms like a faster heartbeat when you are around the situation or object.

How are anxiety disorders treated?

Anxiety disorders can be treated with medicines or counseling. A combination of both may be used.

Medicines may include:

  • Antidepressants. These may help your symptoms by keeping chemicals in your brain in balance.
  • Benzodiazepines. These may give you short-term relief of your symptoms.

Some people use cognitive-behavioral therapy. A therapist helps you learn to change stressful or bad thoughts into helpful thoughts.

Lead a healthy lifestyle

A healthy lifestyle may help you feel better.

  • Get at least 30 minutes of exercise on most days of the week. Walking is a good choice.
  • Eat a healthy diet. Include fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains in your diet each day.
  • Try to go to bed at the same time every night. Try for 8 hours of sleep a night.
  • Find ways to manage stress. Try relaxation exercises.
  • Avoid alcohol and illegal drugs.

Dealing with anxiety

Home treatment, combined with professional treatment, can help relieve anxiety. Here are some tips to help you cope with anxiety.

  • Know your anxiety.

    Recognize and accept your anxiety about specific fears or situations. Then make a plan for dealing with it. For example, if you are always worrying about finances, set up a budget or savings plan.

  • Don't dwell on past problems.

    Change what you can to help you feel more comfortable with present concerns. But let go of past problems or things you can't change.

  • Be kind to your body.
    • Relieve tension with exercise or massage.
    • Try stress-relief techniques that focus on relaxing your mind and your body.
    • Get enough rest.
    • Practice healthy thinking, and stop negative thoughts. Choose helpful thoughts to replace the unhelpful ones.
    • Avoid alcohol, caffeine, chocolate, and nicotine. They may make you more anxious. Some drugs, such as cocaine, crack, and speed (amphetamines), also can cause anxiety.
  • Engage your mind.
    • Get out and do something you enjoy. For example, go to a funny movie or take a walk or hike.
    • Plan your day. Having too much or too little to do can make you more anxious.
    • Keep a diary of your symptoms. Or discuss your fears with a good friend. Confiding in others sometimes relieves stress.
  • Do things with others.

    Get involved in social groups, or volunteer to help others. Being alone can make things seem worse than they are.

  • Get support.

    Learn about resources available in your community.

    • Talk with your human resources officer about counseling benefits that may be available through your employee assistance program.
    • Check with your insurance company to see what mental health benefits are available.
    • Contact your public health department for information on community mental health programs.

What are anxiety disorders?

Anxiety disorders are a type of medical problem. They cause severe anxiety. When you feel anxious, you feel that something bad is about to happen. This feeling interferes with your life.

These disorders include:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder. You feel worried and stressed about many everyday events and activities. This goes on for several months and disrupts your life on most days.
  • Panic disorder. You have repeated panic attacks. A panic attack is a sudden, intense fear or anxiety. It may make you feel short of breath. Your heart may pound.
  • Social anxiety disorder. You feel very anxious about what you will say or do in front of people. For example, you may be scared to talk or eat in public. This problem affects your daily life.
  • Phobias. You are very scared of a specific object, situation, or activity. For example, you may fear spiders, high places, or small spaces.

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