We’re all familiar with situations—important, stressful events, for example—that may cause anxiety. For most of us, this feeling soon passes and doesn’t interfere with our everyday lives. For people affected by anxiety disorders, however, a sense of fearfulness and uncertainty recurs often over an extended period (for at least six months).
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately 40 million American adults are affected by anxiety disorders each year.
Types of anxiety include panic disorder (also known as panic attacks), obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). (Phobias are also considered anxiety disorders and will be discussed later.)
Panic disorder involves panic attacks that come on suddenly. They’re associated with fear, a sense of unreality, or fear of losing control. It’s possible for a person to have a single panic attack and never experience one again or to experience isolated attacks; such individuals do not necessarily have panic disorder. If, however, repeated panic attacks begin to alter your life or become disabling—causing you to avoid situations and places that may trigger one, for example—you may have panic disorder.
Signs of a panic attack include:
People affected by panic disorder can experience an attack at anytime, even during sleep, so worry about when another attack will occur can add to anxiety. If left untreated, panic disorder can progress to agoraphobia, a fear of open spaces; at this point, the disease becomes disabling, as it limits normal daily activities.
Obsessive compulsive disorder is characterized by persistent, upsetting thoughts (called obsessions) that cause anxiety; the affected individual responds to these obsessions by performing habitual, compulsive behaviors (compulsions). For example, an obsessive fear of germs and dirt may lead a person to wash his or her hands repeatedly, far beyond what is required for hygiene.
People affected by OCD don’t enjoy performing their rituals, and the compulsion to complete them can interfere with work and other activities of daily life.
People affected by PTSD have experienced a major event that involved physical harm or the threat of harm to themselves or someone else. PTSD is often associated with war veterans but can affect anyone who has experienced a trauma such as rape, torture, assault, a natural disaster, kidnapping, or hostage situations or car, train, or plane crashes.
PTSD may cause an individual to startle easily, become emotionally numb, lose interest in things they once enjoyed, have trouble showing affection, and become irritable and aggressive. They may also have flashbacks or nightmares, during which they relive the traumatic event.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is characterized by excess worry about common problems that lasts for at least six months. People affected by GAD may have intense concerns about issues related to health, money, or family—to an extent that they experience extreme tension; they may startle easily and have trouble concentrating and sleeping. Symptoms of GAD include muscle tension, fatigue, restlessness, difficulty sleeping, irritability, and gastrointestinal discomfort.
Phobias are also considered anxiety disorders. They include social phobia (also known as social anxiety disorder), specific phobias, and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).
Social phobia, or social anxiety disorder, is characterized by an overwhelming feeling of anxiety and self-consciousness in everyday social situations. This excessive worry about being embarrassed in public or harshly judged by others can interfere with any activity requiring social interaction—work, school, celebrations, and everyday activities like grocery shopping.
People with social phobia may become intensely anxious before and during anticipated encounters. They may blush, sweat profusely, tremble, have trouble speaking, and feel nauseous.
An intense, irrational fear of a particular thing is considered a specific phobia. Examples of specific phobias include a fear of heights, tunnels, dogs, or closed-in places. When people who are affected by specific phobias must face—or even think about facing—the things they fear, they may experience a panic attack or severe anxiety.
Treatment for anxiety disorders is determined by individual preference, the nature of the disorder, and past treatment for anxiety disorders. Approaches to treatment include medication or psychotherapy or both. As well, your doctor will likely conduct a medical exam to make sure that the symptoms of anxiety are not related to a physical condition. And because anxiety disorders are sometimes accompanied by alcoholism or drug abuse, if present these issues must be addressed before treatment for the anxiety disorder can begin.
Alternatives to medical treatment may also be incorporated into the treatment plan for some anxiety disorders. Approaches including relaxation techniques, meditation, yoga, and exercise may help control anxiety and promote of feeling of calmness.