Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the US, impacting over 40 million adults, or roughly 19% of the population. Of those adults, 63% reach out for treatment, making up a significant portion of the over 41.7 million US adults in therapy.
Understanding the types and symptoms of anxiety disorders can offer insight into how these conditions work and whether you might be living with one. If you see yourself in these symptoms, you are not alone, and support is available. Anxiety disorders are often highly treatable with therapy, medication, or a combined integrative approach.
What Is An Anxiety Disorder?
Anxiety disorders are a category in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). These conditions are characterized by frequent feelings of anxiety, worry, or fear, demonstrated through physical and emotional symptoms. While some people experience temporary anxiety throughout their lives, individuals with an anxiety disorder experience persistent and intense anxiety that causes difficulty functioning. There are ten anxiety disorders, including the following:
- Panic disorder
- Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
- Specific phobias
- Social anxiety disorder
- Separation anxiety disorder
- Selective mutism
- 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 listed as anxiety disorders but are no longer.
Common Anxiety Disorders
There are several common anxiety disorders. While these types may have some similarities, the manifestation of symptoms in each type can differ. Below are a few anxiety disorders that can occur in anyone of any gender, race, sexuality, or background.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is one of the most common types of anxiety disorder. It is characterized by a generalized fear, concern, or worry surrounding everyday activities and occurrences like work, school, family life, social interaction, and romantic relationships. People with GAD can manifest anxiety symptoms in many situations, and feelings of anxiety are not limited to specific scenarios or activities. For some, anxiety may occur without motive.
Panic disorder can involve frequent and unexpected panic attacks, episodes of intense fear or terror that may bring shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, chest pain, and feelings of impending doom. People with this condition may also experience panic attacks out of fear of having another panic attack.
Social Anxiety Disorder
Social anxiety disorder involves intense fear or anxiety surrounding social situations. Individuals with social anxiety may fear that others will judge them and may feel embarrassed or ashamed in social situations. This fear may result in avoidance of socializing, difficulty speaking, selective mutism, and physical symptoms.
Individuals with a specific phobia may have intense anxiety surrounding specific situations, objects, people, or concepts. Anxiety symptoms in individuals with this type of anxiety disorder may only occur when the person is face-to-face with a particular fear. Examples of common phobias include a fear of heights, blood, spiders, or flying.
Separation Anxiety Disorder
While separation anxiety disorder is often thought to occur in children primarily, it also manifests and continues into adulthood. Adults with separation anxiety disorder may experience fear or anxiety combined with physical symptoms of fear when faced with separation from someone they’re attached to, such as family members or close friends. This condition may involve nightmares about separation from loved ones or a general and unwarranted fear of harm being done to these loved ones.
Symptoms Of Anxiety Disorders
One of the main symptoms of an anxiety disorder is an intense feeling of anxiety. However, some symptoms of anxiety disorders differ. Below are a few common symptoms.
Symptoms Of Generalized Anxiety Disorder
Generalized anxiety disorder is the most common anxiety disorder and can include symptoms like the following:
- Insomnia or sleep changes, including difficulty staying asleep or a feeling of exhaustion in the morning
- Restlessness or excess energy
- Difficulty focusing
- Difficulty addressing fear or worry
- Tension in the muscles
Symptoms Of Panic Disorder
The unique symptoms of panic disorder include the following:
- Heart palpitations or a loud heartbeat
- Shortness of breath
- A feeling of being suffocated
- A sensation that one is not in control of oneself or their surroundings
- Worry about when the next panic attack will occur
- Avoidance of places or situations one associates with panic attacks
Symptoms Of Social Anxiety Disorder
Below are a few common symptoms of social anxiety disorder:
- Feelings of self-consciousness
- Blushing, sweating, stomach aches, or a racing heart in social situations
- Difficulty talking to new people
- Struggling to form words
- Going over conversations in one’s mind after the fact
- Being highly judgmental of oneself after social interactions
Symptoms Of Specific Phobias
Specific phobias can have unique symptoms, including the following:
- Active avoidance of the inciting factor of one’s phobia
- Worry and concern about encountering the feared situation
- Extreme feelings of anxiety, fear, panic, or worry when encountering the phobia
Symptoms Of Separation Anxiety Disorder
Below are a few symptoms of separation anxiety disorder:
- Avoidance of being alone or being separated from the people they are attached to
- Fear that danger will occur for the people they are attached to when apart
- Nightmares about being separated from the people they are attached to
Note that each person shows and experiences anxiety differently and may respond differently in various situations. This list of symptoms is not exhaustive, and individuals with anxiety disorders may not experience all of the above symptoms.
Treatment Options For Anxiety Disorders
There are several available treatments for anxiety disorders. However, consult a healthcare professional to determine the best treatment approach for you. For some people, a combination of approaches may be beneficial. Below are a few options.
In some cases, medication is used to help clients manage anxiety symptoms. If you are interested in medication for anxiety, consult your doctor to discuss your options and determine what might work best for you. In addition, consult your provider before starting, changing, or stopping a medication.
Medication for anxiety disorders is not designed to cure the disorder but to help individuals manage symptoms. They may be a temporary option or used alongside therapy to ease the therapeutic process for the individual.
Lifestyle Techniques For Stress Management
While they may not be sufficient independently, lifestyle techniques for stress management may be beneficial in reducing anxiety, especially in combination with other approaches. Many techniques can be used, including establishing an exercise routine, meditating, or practicing deep breathing. You can ask your therapist for help to decide what techniques may be right for you.
Therapy is often considered the most effective treatment for anxiety disorders. One evidence-based treatment often used is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This therapy type has proven particularly effective in helping people manage symptoms. A CBT therapist can guide clients in identifying, challenging, and changing maladaptive thought patterns that may contribute to anxiety. One CBT method that is frequently used is exposure therapy, which involves the active confrontation of fears or anxieties.
For some individuals with an anxiety disorder, aspects of seeking therapy in person may feel stressful, such as commuting to a new place, waiting in an office, and talking with a stranger face-to-face. For these individuals, online therapy through a platform like BetterHelp might feel less intimidating, allowing them to speak with a therapist online from anywhere, including home.
Research has shown that online therapy can be effective for individuals with anxiety. One study examined the efficacy of internet-delivered CBT compared with face-to-face CBT for anxiety disorders. The study found that ICBT and face-to-face CBT had equivalent overall effects in treating anxiety disorders.
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