Anxiety is a common and natural emotion, but it can also cause physical symptoms, such as shaking and sweating. Anxiety disorders can affect daily life but can often improve with treatment.
Anxiety disorders form a category of mental health diagnoses that lead to excessive nervousness, fear, apprehension, and worry.
This article discusses the symptoms, causes, and treatments for anxiety.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), around 40 million people in the United States have an anxiety disorder. It is the most common group of mental illnesses in the country. However, only 36.9% of people with an anxiety disorder receive treatment.
The American Psychological Association (APA) defines anxiety as “an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes like increased blood pressure.”
Knowing the difference between typical feelings of anxiety and an anxiety disorder requiring medical attention can help a person identify and treat the condition.
Learn more about anxiety in our dedicated hub.
Anxiety and anxiety disorders
Anxiety is a complex response to real or perceived threats. It
Real or perceived danger causes a rush of adrenaline, a hormone and chemical messenger in the brain, which in turn triggers these anxiety reactions in a process called the fight-or-flight response. Some people may experience this response in difficult social situations or around important events or decisions.
The duration or severity of feelings of anxiety can sometimes be out of proportion to the original trigger or stressor. Physical symptoms, such as increased blood pressure and nausea, may also develop. These responses move beyond anxiety into an anxiety disorder.
Once anxiety reaches the stage of a disorder, it
There are several different anxiety disorders, which can present with different symptoms. Typical symptoms of anxious feelings
- uncontrollable feelings of worry
- increased irritability
- difficulty concentrating
- sleep difficulties
While many people will occasionally experience these symptoms in daily life, people with general anxiety disorder (GAD) will experience them at persistent or extreme levels.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders: 5th Edition, text revision (DSM-5-TR) classifies anxiety disorders into several main types.
In previous editions of the DSM-5-TR, anxiety disorders included obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as well as acute stress disorder. However, the manual
Anxiety disorders now include the following:
This chronic disorder involves excessive, long lasting anxiety and worries about nonspecific life events, objects, and situations. GAD is the most common anxiety disorder, and people with it are not always able to identify the cause of their anxiety.
Brief or sudden attacks of intense terror and apprehension characterize panic disorder. These attacks can lead to shaking, confusion, dizziness, nausea, and breathing difficulties. Panic attacks tend to occur and escalate rapidly.
Panic disorders usually occur after frightening experiences or prolonged stress but may also occur without a trigger.
Learn about panic disorder and panic attacks here.
This is a fear and avoidance of a particular object or situation. Phobias are not like other anxiety disorders, as they
A person with a phobia might acknowledge fear as illogical or extreme but remain unable to control feelings of anxiety around the trigger. Triggers for a phobia range from situations and animals to everyday objects.
Learn more about phobias and how they develop here.
This is a fear and avoidance of places, events, or situations from which it may be difficult to escape or where help would not be available in emergencies.
People often misunderstand this condition as a phobia of open spaces and the outdoors. A person with agoraphobia may fear leaving home or using elevators and public transport.
Learn more about agoraphobia here.
Some children experience this form of anxiety, in which they cannot speak in certain places or contexts, even though they may have excellent verbal communication skills around familiar people.
Learn more about selective mutism in adults and children here.
Social anxiety disorder
This is a fear of adverse judgment from others in social situations or of public embarrassment. Social anxiety disorder includes
Learn more about social anxiety disorder.
Separation anxiety disorder
High anxiety levels after separation from a person or place that provides feelings of security or safety characterize separation anxiety disorder. Separation anxiety is
The causes of anxiety disorders are complicated. Many might occur at once, some may lead to others, and some might not lead to an anxiety disorder unless another is present.
Possible causes include:
- environmental stressors, such as relationship problems or family issues
- medical factors, such as disease symptoms or the effects of a medication
- substance withdrawal
Sometimes, alcohol dependence, depression, or other underlying conditions require treatment before treating an anxiety disorder can take place.
Sometimes, a person can treat an anxiety disorder at home without clinical supervision. However, this may not be effective for severe or long-term anxiety disorders.
There are several exercises and actions to help a person cope with milder, more focused, or shorter-term anxiety disorders, including:
- stress management
- relaxation techniques
- maintaining support networks
- physical exercise
Learn about some other ways to treat anxiety naturally.
A standard way of treating anxiety is psychological counseling. This can include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), psychotherapy, or a combination of therapies.
CBT is a type of psychotherapy that aims to recognize and change harmful thought patterns that form the foundation of anxious and troublesome feelings.
Learn more about different types of therapy here.
A person can support anxiety management with
Medicines that might control some physical and mental symptoms include antidepressants, benzodiazepines, and tricyclic antidepressants.
- Benzodiazepines: A doctor may prescribe these for certain people with anxiety, but they can cause addiction. Diazepam, or Valium, is a common benzodiazepine.
- Antidepressants: These commonly help with anxiety, even though they also target depression. Serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), fluoxetine, and citalopram are examples.
- Tricyclic antidepressants: These are an older class of drugs that benefit most anxiety disorders other than obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Imipramine and clomipramine are two examples of tricyclics.
Additional drugs a person might use to treat anxiety include:
Seek medical advice if the adverse effects of any prescribed medications become severe.
There are ways to reduce the risk of anxiety disorders. Remember that anxious feelings are a natural factor of daily life, and experiencing them does not always indicate the presence of a mental health disorder.
People may benefit from the following:
- reducing caffeine intake
- checking with a health professional before using over-the-counter or herbal remedies
- maintaining a balanced, nutritious diet
- keeping a regular sleep pattern
- regularly exercising
- avoiding alcohol, cannabis, and other recreational drugs
Anxiety is not a medical condition but a natural emotion that is vital for survival when an individual faces danger.
An anxiety disorder develops when this reaction becomes exaggerated or out-of-proportion to the trigger that causes it. There are several types of anxiety disorders, including panic disorder, phobias, and social anxiety.
Treatment involves a combination of therapy, medication, and counseling alongside self-help measures.
An active lifestyle with a balanced diet can help keep anxious emotions within healthy limits.