Understanding Anxiety Disorders: Types, Symptoms, and Treatment Options
Updated: May 24
Anxiety disorders are a prevalent mental health condition affecting millions of people worldwide. These disorders often involve excessive and persistent worry, fear, and anxiety that interfere with daily activities and overall well-being. In this comprehensive guide, we will delve into the various types of anxiety disorders, their symptoms, causes, risk factors, and available treatment options.
Experiencing occasional anxiety is a normal part of life. However, people with anxiety disorders frequently have intense, excessive, and persistent worry and fear about everyday situations. Often, anxiety disorders involve repeated episodes of sudden feelings of intense anxiety and fear or terror that reach a peak within minutes, known as panic attacks.
These feelings of anxiety and panic interfere with daily activities, are difficult to control, are out of proportion to the actual danger, and can last a long time. Anxiety disorders may lead individuals to avoid places or situations to prevent these feelings. Symptoms may start during childhood or the teen years and continue into adulthood.
Types of Anxiety Disorders
Several types of anxiety disorders exist, including:
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD): Involves persistent and excessive anxiety and worry about activities or events, even ordinary, routine issues. The worry is out of proportion to the actual circumstance, is difficult to control, and affects how you feel physically.
Panic Disorder: Characterized by repeated episodes of sudden feelings of intense anxiety and fear or terror that reach a peak within minutes (panic attacks). These panic attacks may lead to worrying about them happening again or avoiding situations in which they've occurred.
Social Anxiety Disorder (Social Phobia): Involves high levels of anxiety, fear, and avoidance of social situations due to feelings of embarrassment, self-consciousness, and concern about being judged or viewed negatively by others.
Specific Phobias: Characterized by significant anxiety when you're exposed to a specific object or situation and a desire to avoid it. Phobias provoke panic attacks in some people.
Agoraphobia: A type of anxiety disorder in which you fear and often avoid places or situations that might cause you to panic and make you feel trapped, helpless, or embarrassed.
Separation Anxiety Disorder: A childhood disorder characterized by anxiety that's excessive for the child's developmental level and related to separation from parents or others who have parental roles.
Selective Mutism: A consistent failure of children to speak in certain situations, such as school, even when they can speak in other situations, such as at home with close family members. This can interfere with school, work, and social functioning.
Anxiety Disorder due to a Medical Condition: Includes symptoms of intense anxiety or panic that are directly caused by a physical health problem.
Substance-Induced Anxiety Disorder: Characterized by symptoms of intense anxiety or panic that are a direct result of misusing drugs, taking medications, being exposed to a toxic substance, or withdrawal from drugs.
Other Specified Anxiety Disorder and Unspecified Anxiety Disorder: Terms for anxiety or phobias that don't meet the exact criteria for any other anxiety disorders but are significant enough to be distressing and disruptive.
Symptoms of Anxiety Disorders
Common anxiety signs and symptoms include:
Feeling nervous, restless, or tense
Having a sense of impending danger, panic, or doom
Increased heart rate
Breathing rapidly (hyperventilation)
Feeling weak or tired
Trouble concentrating or thinking about anything other than the present worry
Gastrointestinal (GI) problems
Difficulty controlling worry
The urge to avoid things that trigger anxiety
Causes of Anxiety Disorders
The causes of anxiety disorders aren't fully understood. Life experiences such as traumatic events appear to trigger anxiety disorders in people who are already prone to anxiety. Inherited traits can also be a factor.
For some people, anxiety may be linked to an underlying health issue. Examples of medical problems that can be linked to anxiety include:
Thyroid problems, such as hyperthyroidism
Respiratory disorders, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and asthma
Drug misuse or withdrawal
Withdrawal from alcohol, anti-anxiety medications (benzodiazepines), or other medications
Chronic pain or irritable bowel syndrome
Rare tumors that produce certain fight-or-flight hormones
Sometimes anxiety can be a side effect of certain medications.
These factors may increase your risk of developing an anxiety disorder:
Trauma: Children who endured abuse or trauma or witnessed traumatic events are at higher risk of developing an anxiety disorder at some point in life. Adults who experience a traumatic event also can develop anxiety disorders.
Stress due to an illness: Having a health condition or serious illness can cause significant worry about issues such as your treatment and your future.
Stress buildup: A big event or a buildup of smaller stressful life situations may trigger excessive anxiety.
Personality: People with certain personality types are more prone to anxiety disorders than others are.
Other mental health disorders: People with other mental health disorders, such as depression, often also have an anxiety disorder.
Having blood relatives with an anxiety disorder: Anxiety disorders can run in families.
Drugs or alcohol: Drug or alcohol use or misuse or withdrawal can cause or worsen anxiety.
Having an anxiety disorder does more than make you worry. It can also lead to, or worsen, other mental and physical conditions, such as:
Depression (which often occurs with an anxiety disorder) or other mental health disorders
Trouble sleeping (insomnia)
Digestive or bowel problems
Headaches and chronic pain
Problems functioning at school or work
Poor quality of life
There's no way to predict for certain what will cause someone to develop an anxiety disorder, but you can take steps to reduce the impact of symptoms if you're anxious:
Get help early: Anxiety, like many other mental health conditions, can be harder to treat if you wait.
Stay active: Participate in activities that you enjoy and that make you feel good about yourself. Enjoy social interaction and caring relationships, which can lessen your worries.
Avoid alcohol or drug use: Alcohol and drug use can cause or worsen anxiety.
Treatment Options for Anxiety Disorders
Anxiety disorders are generally treated with psychotherapy, medication, or both. There are many ways to treat anxiety, and you should work with a healthcare provider to choose the best treatment for you.
Psychotherapy, or "talk therapy," can help people with anxiety disorders. To be effective, psychotherapy must be directed at your specific anxieties and tailored to your needs.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
CBT is an example of one type of psychotherapy that can help people with anxiety disorders. It teaches people different ways of thinking, behaving, and reacting to situations to help you feel less anxious and fearful. CBT has been well studied and is the gold standard for psychotherapy.
Exposure therapy is a CBT method that is used to treat anxiety disorders. Exposure therapy focuses on confronting the fears underlying an anxiety disorder to help people engage in activities they have been avoiding. Exposure therapy is sometimes used along with relaxation exercises.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)
Another treatment option for some anxiety disorders is ACT. ACT takes a different approach than CBT to negative thoughts. It uses strategies such as mindfulness and goal setting to reduce discomfort and anxiety. Compared to CBT, ACT is a newer form of psychotherapy treatment, so less data are available on its effectiveness.
Medication does not cure anxiety disorders but can help relieve symptoms. Healthcare providers, such as a psychiatrist or primary care provider, can prescribe medication for anxiety. Some states also allow psychologists who have received specialized training to prescribe psychiatric medications. The most common classes of medications used to combat anxiety disorders are antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications (such as benzodiazepines), and beta-blockers.
Antidepressants are used to treat depression, but they can also be helpful for treating anxiety disorders. They may help improve the way your brain uses certain chemicals that control mood or stress. You may need to try several different antidepressant medicines before finding the one that improves your symptoms and has manageable side effects.
Antidepressants can take several weeks to start working, so it's essential to give the medication a chance before reaching a conclusion about its effectiveness. If you begin taking antidepressants, do not stop taking them without the help of a healthcare provider.
Your provider can help you slowly and safely decrease your dose. Stopping them abruptly can cause withdrawal symptoms.
Anti-anxiety medications can help reduce the symptoms of anxiety, panic attacks, or extreme fear and worry. The most common anti-anxiety medications are called benzodiazepines. Although benzodiazepines are sometimes used as first-line treatments for generalized anxiety disorder, they have both benefits and drawbacks.
Benzodiazepines are effective in relieving anxiety and take effect more quickly than antidepressant medications. However, some people build up a tolerance to these medications and need higher and higher doses to get the same effect. Some people even become dependent on them.
To avoid these problems, healthcare providers usually prescribe benzodiazepines for short periods of time.
Although beta-blockers are most often used to treat high blood pressure, they can help relieve the physical symptoms of anxiety, such as rapid heartbeat, shaking, trembling, and blushing. These medications can help people keep physical symptoms under control when taken for short periods. They can also be used "as needed" to reduce acute anxiety, including to prevent some predictable forms of performance anxieties.
Some people with anxiety disorders might benefit from joining a self-help or support group and sharing their problems and achievements with others. Support groups are available both in person and online. However, any advice you receive from a support group member should be used cautiously and does not replace treatment recommendations from a healthcare provider.
Stress Management Techniques
Stress management techniques, such as exercise, mindfulness, and meditation, also can reduce anxiety symptoms and enhance the effects of psychotherapy. You can learn more about how these techniques benefit your treatment by talking with a healthcare provider.
Anxiety disorders can be challenging and disruptive to those who suffer from them. However, with proper treatment and support, individuals can manage their symptoms and lead fulfilling lives. If you or someone you know is struggling with anxiety, it's essential to seek help from a healthcare provider as soon as possible. Early intervention can make a significant difference in the effectiveness of treatment and overall quality of life.