Recognizing and understanding anxiety disorders

Medically reviewed by Majesty Purvis
Updated January 23, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Anxiety disorders are some of the most common mental health conditions in the US, with 18.1% of the population (around 40 million people) diagnosed throughout their lifetime. There are ten anxiety disorders listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), which are different than those listed in the DSM-3 and DSM-4, and many are treatable or manageable with therapy, medication, or a combination of the two. If you or a loved one has anxiety or you're looking to learn more about these conditions, it can be helpful to distinguish between their symptoms and presentations. 

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Seeking help for anxiety is the first step to wellness

What are the anxiety disorders in the DSM-5?

In the DSM-5, there are 12 anxiety disorder diagnoses listed, including the following:

  • Panic disorder
  • Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
  • Specific phobias
  • Social anxiety disorder
  • Separation anxiety disorder
  • Selective mutism
  • Agoraphobia
  • Substance or medication-induced anxiety disorder
  • Anxiety disorder due to another medical condition
  • Other specified anxiety disorder
In the DSM-5, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is listed under obsessive-compulsive and related disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is listed under trauma and stressor-related disorders. These conditions were previously considered anxiety disorders in previous versions of the DSM.

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) 

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is a mental illness marked by persistent feelings of anxiety lasting longer than six months. People experiencing GAD may experience pervasive worries about social relationships, work, financial matters, and health that interfere with daily life.

Symptoms of GAD

If you have three or more of the following symptoms for most days over six months or more, your doctor or mental health professional may arrive at a diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder: 

  • Dwelling on plans and solutions to worst-case scenarios
  • Frequent worrying 
  • Feeling threatened in situations where no threat exists
  • Difficulty accepting uncertainty
  • Indecisiveness 
  • Difficulty letting go of worrying thoughts
  • Feeling restless, on edge, and unable to relax
  • Experiencing a "blank mind" 
  • Fatigue
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Muscle tension
  • Trembling
  • Nervousness
  • Startling easily 
  • Sweating
  • Indigestion 
  • Irritability

Treatment for GAD

Generalized anxiety disorder is often treatable. Treatment options include but aren't limited to, cognitive-behavioral therapy, supportive psychotherapy, mindfulness-based therapy, medications, and other forms of therapy. 

Panic disorder

Panic disorder is often characterized by spontaneously occurring, intense feelings of stress, fear, and panic. These feelings can emerge at any time, often without an apparent cause. 

Symptoms of panic disorder

Panic disorder involves sudden and intense fear, helplessness, and extreme worry. In some cases, panic attacks are brought on by fear of having a panic attack. These attacks may cause you to avoid places where an attack has happened in the past or situations that might prompt one. 

When treating panic disorder, therapists may consider whether the attacks are expected or unexpected, caused by a thought or situation, and how many attack symptoms are present. They may also consider the length of the attack and how it impacts the individual's functioning. 

Panic attacks often feel primarily physical. The following are the most common symptoms of anxiety attacks:

  • Feeling sudden, intense fear
  • Heart palpitations
  • Sweating
  • Trembling
  • Shortness of breath
  • Choking sensations
  • Chest pain
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Feelings of detachment
  • A fear of dying
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Chills or hot flushes

Treatments for panic disorder

People experiencing panic disorder may spend significant time anticipating the next panic attack. Having a treatment strategy that prepares you to cope with it when and if it arises could be beneficial. 

A treatment plan might involve changing how you think about the physical symptoms of anxiety attacks and your responses to them. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is one method that is often used to support individuals with these conditions. Medications are also common treatments for people experiencing panic disorder.

Consult your doctor before starting, changing, or stopping medication for a mental or physical health concern. 

Social anxiety disorder 

Social anxiety disorder is one of the most common anxiety disorders in the US. It might also be referred to as social phobia. 

Symptoms of social anxiety

Social anxiety disorder often appears early in life, with 80% of people having symptoms before age 20. If you have social anxiety disorder, you may experience any of the following symptoms:

  • Severe anxiety in social situations 
  • Difficulty talking to people
  • Fear of being judged
  • Worrying about a social event before it occurs 
  • Feeling self-conscious in front of other people
  • Fear of being humiliated or rejected
  • Fear of offending others
  • Avoiding places where other people might be
  • Blushing, trembling, or sweating in social conversations 
  • Feeling nauseous when you're with other people
  • Difficulty making or keeping friends
  • Performance anxiety in stressful situations 
  • Difficulty working in groups at work or school 

Treatment for social anxiety

The primary treatment for social anxiety may be cognitive-behavioral therapy or exposure and response prevention (ERP). Because social anxiety is also often considered a type of phobia, exposure therapy may help these individuals gradually expose themselves to social situations to gain social skills and reduce anxiety. 

Separation anxiety

Separation anxiety disorder is marked by intense anxiety when away from home or someone you're attached to. Infants and toddlers go through stages of separation anxiety as a regular part of development. However, when older children, teenagers, and adults have persistent separation anxiety, it may indicate an underlying mental health concern. 

Symptoms of separation anxiety

Symptoms of separation anxiety can include:

  • Distress about being away from home or loved ones before or during the absence
  • Constant worry about losing someone you love through illness or disaster
  • The constant worry that something may happen to separate you from loved ones
  • Avoiding fear by refusing to leave home
  • Experiencing difficulty being alone at home 
  • Refusing to sleep away from home unless loved ones are present
  • Nightmares about being separated from loved ones
  • Headaches or stomachaches when you expect to be away from loved ones
  • Anxiety or panic attacks before or during separation

Coping with separation anxiety

Cognitive-behavioral therapy may be an effective treatment for separation anxiety. In CBT, individuals learn to manage their fears around separation by looking at their thoughts and behavioral patterns. In some cases, medication might be recommended. 

Other anxiety disorders

The other anxiety disorders not discussed in detail above include the following: 

  • Selective mutism
  • Specific phobias 
  • Agoraphobia
  • Substance or medication-induced anxiety disorder
  • Anxiety disorder due to another medical condition
  • Other specified anxiety disorder

These mental health conditions can also cause severe feelings of anxiety, physical symptoms, and impaired functioning. Discuss your symptoms with a mental health professional to learn more about the potential causes of your anxiety. 

If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources.

Seeking help for anxiety is the first step to wellness

Counseling options 

If you are experiencing frequent, prolonged symptoms of any anxiety disorder and feel that these symptoms disrupt your daily life, seek a diagnosis from a qualified mental health professional. These professionals may develop a treatment plan tailored to your specific needs to reduce your symptoms and find ways to cope. If your therapist recommends medication, your primary doctor or a psychiatrist may prescribe medications. However, consult this individual before starting a new medication. 

Therapy may help you make changes in how you cope with anxiety symptoms. However, some people can experience barriers to obtaining treatment. For instance, people with symptoms of social anxiety may feel uncomfortable speaking to a therapist in person or encountering others in an office setting. Online therapy provides a convenient solution to many barriers, and it's as effective as in-person treatment in treating common anxiety disorders. 

If you're interested in trying online therapy, a platform like BetterHelp can connect you with experienced, licensed professionals with various specialties. Depending on your needs, you can speak with a therapist online from any location with an internet connection and choose between phone, video, or chat sessions. 

Takeaway

Anxiety disorders can be challenging to live with but are some of the most treatable mental illnesses. If you're living with symptoms of an anxiety disorder, you're not alone. Consider reaching out to a mental health professional for further guidance and support.

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.
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