What is anxiety? Definition, types, and treatment options

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated February 28, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

A sense of worry about certain stressful situations in life is generally considered to be a natural reaction. However, when anxiety becomes consistent, pervasive, and begins to impact a person’s daily life and functioning, it may be categorized as some type of clinical anxiety disorder.

Anxiety disorders are the most common type of mental health disorder among adults in the United States, affecting approximately 40 million people over age 18.

Read on to learn more about how anxiety can manifest and what treatment options are available.

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Symptoms of anxiety

Anxiety can present as a variety of symptoms depending on the type of disorder an individual is experiencing. People with anxiety can typically learn to manage these with the proper treatment. Some common symptoms of anxiety are as follows:

  • Persistent, irrational, and/or excessive worry
  • A frequent sense of doom or danger 
  • Feeling restless or on edge
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty falling or staying asleep 

Anxiety can sometimes manifest as physical symptoms too, including:

  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Shortness of breath
  • Shakiness
  • Upset stomach
  • Racing heart rate
  • Muscle aches
  • Sweating

Common anxiety disorders

Anxiety disorders are a category of mental illnesses. While they all involve some clinical manifestation of the experience of anxiety, the causes, symptoms, and treatment methods used for each may vary. A few of the most common types of anxiety disorders include the following.

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)

GAD is characterized by near-constant and/or excessive worry that can persist for months or even years. These moderate to extreme feelings of anxiety may be related to specific events and/or may be general and pervasive without a direct, identifiable cause. These feelings can come to represent significant obstacles in a person’s daily functioning, relationships, and school or work life. 

Panic disorder

Panic disorder occurs when an individual experiences unexpected panic attacks, typically without any recognizable reason or cause. A panic attack is usually characterized by intense feelings of fear, dread, and a loss of control along with strong physical symptoms such as a rapid heartbeat, irregular breathing, tingling or numbness in the extremities, nausea, chills, and sweating. Panic disorder can develop after an individual experiences one or more panic attacks and is typically related to a strong fear of experiencing another.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)

OCD is a form of anxiety in which an individual experiences unwanted, irrational, and obsessive thoughts that often lead to compulsive behaviors. The drive to perform compulsions—which may include things like repetitive cleaning, checking, counting, organizing, etc.—in particular can significantly interfere with a person’s functioning and quality of life.

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Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Post-traumatic stress disorder may develop in some people who have witnessed or experienced a traumatic event, such as a violent act, a natural disaster, active combat, or abuse. Without treatment, the difficult memories of the experience may continue to affect them over time, often to the point that they have difficulty functioning. Common symptoms include nightmares, flashbacks to the event, intrusive thoughts, a severe sense of anxiety, and others.

Social anxiety disorder

Social anxiety disorder may be diagnosed when an individual experiences a persistent and intense fear of being judged or embarrassed in social situations. It’s more than just shyness and is instead characterized by avoidance of social situations and/or moderate to severe symptoms of anxiety when faced with them. 

How anxiety is diagnosed

Most everyone experiences feelings of anxiety from time to time. However, if these feelings are persistent, intense, and/or regularly interfere with your daily functioning, you may want to consider meeting with a healthcare professional for evaluation. A medical doctor can analyze your symptoms and medical history and run tests to rule out any possible physical causes of what you’re experiencing. They may then refer you to a mental health professional, who will typically compare your symptoms to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) to identify whether they may qualify as a clinical mental health disorder. They will then usually recommend a treatment plan. Even if your symptoms do not qualify as a disorder, a therapist can still help you develop coping skills to handle them.

How anxiety is treated

The recommended treatment for someone with an anxiety disorder depends on the specific disorder, the severity of their symptoms, any coexisting conditions, and their personal medical and mental health history. That said, some form of psychotherapy is usually a key component of treatment. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), for instance, is considered to be “the current gold standard of psychological treatment,” and research supports its effectiveness for various anxiety disorders. A cognitive behavioral therapist will focus on helping an individual learn to recognize and then shift distorted or flawed thought patterns that are causing distressing feelings and/or behaviors.

Other types of therapy a mental health professional might recommend include exposure therapy, interpersonal therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy, or others. Note that a medical professional may also prescribe certain types of medication for those with anxiety disorders, typically in conjunction with psychotherapy as well. Again, it all depends on a specific person's unique symptoms and situation.

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Seeking support for anxiety

In general, anxiety disorders are considered to be highly treatable, with a variety of effective methods available for managing symptoms. If you’re looking for support with those that you may be experiencing, you might consider meeting with a therapist. They can help you pinpoint your symptoms, develop techniques for managing them, and learn how to shift distressing thought patterns. In most cases, you can choose between online or in-person sessions depending on your preference.

Research suggests that online therapy can be similarly effective to traditional, in-office treatment. One study indicates that individuals who engaged in virtual therapy demonstrated “significant and clinically meaningful improvements in depression and anxiety scores” 12 weeks post-intervention, which were sustained at six months as well. If you’re looking for support in managing anxiety symptoms, online therapy can be a convenient and effective way to get started. With a virtual therapy platform like BetterHelp, you can get matched with a licensed therapist who you can meet with via phone, video call, and/or online chat to address the challenges you may be facing.

Takeaway

Experiencing anxiety in the face of a stressful event, for example, is a common human experience. However, when anxiety and related symptoms are persistent and begin to interfere with one’s daily functioning, meeting with a trained therapist may be worthwhile.
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