Chronic Anxiety: Symptoms And Treatment

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated March 21, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention substance use-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is struggling with substance use, contact SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). Support is available 24/7. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Everyone experiences occasional anxiety, but chronic anxiety is different. Chronic anxiety can prevent you from living your life to the fullest, changing how you behave and interact with others and the world around you. 

If anxiety seems like your constant companion, you can get help. Start by learning what the symptoms are and exploring your treatment options, such as psychotherapy for anxiety.

Online counseling can offer high-quality treatment and support

What is chronic anxiety?

While there is no official diagnosis for “chronic anxiety,” there are multiple subcategories of anxiety disorders that can affect an individual in the long term.

Chronic anxiety can begin to manifest at any age., including childhood, and may stem from many factors, including experiencing a traumatic event. Other risk factors, such as genetics and brain chemistry, also play significant roles in the onset of chronic anxiety. While symptoms may initially develop gradually, they can escalate over time, becoming increasingly severe and persistent.

Symptoms of anxiety can cause significant distress and may be best helped with the assistance of a licensed mental health professional.

Physical symptoms

Chronic anxiety symptoms can manifest physically and may even exacerbate existing physical health conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome. Physical signs and symptoms of anxiety may include:

  • Rapid heartbeat

  • Muscle tension

  • Difficulty breathing

  • Hyperventilation

  • Exhaustion

  • Sleep problems

  • Muscle tension or muscle aches

  • High blood pressure

  • Digestive system problems

  • Chest or throat tightness or pain

  • Stomachache or sensation of butterflies in the stomach

  • Headaches

  • Chills

  • Dizziness

  • Being easily startled

  • Sweaty palms

  • Throat constriction

  • Trembling

Cognitive symptoms

The cognitive symptoms of chronic anxiety often revolve around worrying thoughts. People with chronic anxiety tend to get stuck in a cycle of worry that they have trouble escaping without help. Here are some of the cognitive symptoms to watch for:

  • Intense stress

  • Excessive worry

  • Hyperarousal

  • Feeling restless

  • Trouble concentrating

  • Trouble dealing with uncertainty

  • Constantly asking, "What if something bad happens?"

  • Obsession with physical symptoms

  • Worry about being humiliated

  • Fear that you can't escape danger

  • Thinking you're going crazy or having a fear of going crazy

  • Memory problems

  • Mood disorders

Emotional symptoms

If you're experiencing chronic anxiety, you may feel many different emotions, including:

  • Worried

  • Apprehensive

  • Distressed

  • Dread

  • Nervous

  • Overwhelmed

  • Panicky

  • Uneasy

  • Fearful or terrified

  • Jumpy or on edge

Behavioral symptoms

Chronic anxiety can affect an individual’s behavior significantly. A person might avoid situations that they associate with their anxiety symptoms. If they’re in a tense situation that triggers a perceived threat (regardless of whether that perceived threat is reasonable), a person with anxiety may want or try to escape it.

Substance use is often linked to anxiety due to its capacity to dull or alleviate feelings of unease. Eventually, a person with anxiety may put severe limits on their activities, not venturing far from home or any place, person, or object that they perceive as safe.

If you or someone you love is struggling with substance use, contact SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Duration and intensity of symptoms

To meet the generalized anxiety disorder diagnosis criteria, you must experience three or more symptoms more days than not for six months or more. The duration and intensity of your anxiety are essential considerations when deciding what to do about your condition.

Anxiety disorder types

There are five major types of anxiety disorders, according to the Department of Health and Human Services:

  • Social anxiety disorder (SAD) — Also known as social phobia, this type of anxiety disorder is characterized by persistent social anxiety. In its most severe form, SAD can harm a person’s relationships, career prospects, and other aspects of life.

  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) — OCD is an anxiety disorder characterized by recurring, unpleasant thoughts (obsessions) and/or repetitive activities. 

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) — PTSD is a disorder in which a person develops overwhelming anxiety after exposure to a traumatizing experience. 

  • Panic disorder — A panic disorder is an anxiety disorder in which a person regularly suffers sudden and recurrent episodes of intense fear, known as panic attacks. Physical symptoms of these panic attacks include chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, wooziness, or stomach discomfort. Some evidence indicates panic disorders can develop from PTSD, with the intense fear associated with past trauma leading to panic attacks.

  • Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) — GAD is an anxiety disorder characterized by symptoms similar to OCD and panic disorder, seemingly due to no apparent cause.

According to the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) used by the American Psychiatric Association, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are not considered anxiety disorders but mental health disorders. However, this is controversial, and PTSD, in particular, is still considered an anxiety disorder by the HHS and other authoritative outlets.

Besides those five major disorders, there are also two other anxiety disorders that mainly affect children: 

  • Separation anxiety disorder — Separation anxiety disorder is when someone experiences intense anxiety and overwhelming worry related to the prospect of being separated from a loved one or caregiver. 

  • Selective mutism — Selective mutism is an anxiety disorder most common in children. This disorder is characterized by an inability or refusal to speak. Selective mutism usually coincides with social anxiety disorder.

If you are living with an anxiety disorder, you are not alone. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, an estimated 19.1% of the adult U.S. population had some sort of anxiety disorder in the past year. Per the National Institute of Mental Health, 31% of Americans will experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives.

Causes of anxiety

There is no one cause of chronic anxiety, but some common factors have been identified. For some people, biological problems contribute to their anxiety. Family background may also play a part, both through genetics and behavior patterns handed down from each generation. Life experiences can also contribute to chronic anxiety.

Chronic depression and anxiety

Depression and anxiety often go hand in hand and can be very difficult to overcome. The depression component is characterized by ongoing symptoms, such as:

  • Persistent sad, anxious mood

  • Feelings of hopelessness or helplessness

  • Pessimistic outlook

  • Feelings of guilt or worthlessness

  • Loss of interest in things that were once enjoyable

  • Low energy

  • Sleep disturbances, sleeping too much or too little

  • Eating too much or too little

  • Unexpected weight loss or weight gain

  • Restlessness

  • Irritability

  • Headaches

  • Digestive problems

  • Pain with no identifiable cause

  • Suicidal thoughts, plans, or attempts

If you have these symptoms along with symptoms of chronic anxiety, seek help. Research has shown that instances of these two conditions occurring together tend to have poorer outcomes.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, it is essential to reach out for help immediately. You can call or text the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for immediate assistance.

Online counseling can offer high-quality treatment and support

Self-help for chronic anxiety

There are various techniques you can try on your own to help alleviate your anxiety symptoms, including:

  • Exercise

  • Yoga

  • Meditation

  • Relaxation techniques

  • Herbal remedies

  • Spending time with friends and family

Treatment for chronic anxiety

For many people with chronic anxiety, treatment by a doctor or counselor provides the best hope for recovery. If you are experiencing chronic anxiety symptoms, talk to your doctor to figure out a treatment plan that will work for you.

There are many ways to treat anxiety disorders, but most will involve a mix of psychotherapy and anti-anxiety medications to manage stress. Support groups can also be helpful, particularly for those dealing with self-consciousness over having an anxiety disorder. 

Cognitive behavioral therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is the most commonly used psychotherapy for chronic anxiety. CBT is a way of training yourself to identify problematic thoughts, evaluate them, and, if needed, replace them with more rational, helpful thoughts. 

CBT is very helpful for anxiety disorders such as: 

  • Separation anxiety disorder

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder

  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder

  • Panic disorder

  • Generalized anxiety disorder

  • Social anxiety disorder


CBT can teach you how to manage your anxious feelings and stop worrisome thoughts that can trigger anxiety, as well as learn coping techniques for stress management and to relieve anxiety when it occurs. 

Acceptance and commitment therapy

Acceptance and commitment therapy is an approach that involves accepting the existence of troublesome thoughts as well as committing to changing your behavior. In one study, three patients with anxiety were treated with ten sessions of acceptance and commitment therapy. They saw significant improvements in their anxiety levels.

Exposure therapy

Exposure therapy focuses on helping people overcome phobias by exposing them thoughtfully and carefully to their triggers. The idea is that, over time, being exposed to that object will lessen their fear until it eventually goes away.

Get started with therapy

Although medication can help people get their symptoms under control quickly, research indicates that psychotherapy can be more effective than medication for treating anxiety. If you’re looking for a way to help you treat your anxiety symptoms, consider online therapy. 

Online therapy has many benefits for people with anxiety. The process is straightforward; just sign up online to be matched with a therapist available to help. With online therapy, you can speak with your therapist from the comfort of your home, and some people report that the distance and space between them and their therapist make it easier to open up.

Research shows that online therapy is effective, too. One study showed that online therapy participants had “significant and clinically meaningful improvements in depression and anxiety scores relative to baseline” at 12 weeks post-intervention sustained at six months. If you’re interested in online therapy to help with your anxiety symptoms, reach out to a BetterHelp therapist to get started.

Takeaway

Managing chronic anxiety of any kind can be taxing and cause frustration or exhaustion. But with the appropriate diagnosis and treatment, symptoms can be managed, and you can live a full and healthy life.
Regulate anxiety in a compassionate environment
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet started