Anxiety disorders: Types, Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment
Everyone feels anxious from time to time in stressful or challenging situations like sitting for an exam, having a job interview, going on a first date, having financial troubles, or having a medical test. Anxiety is part of the body’s natural reaction to stress, and it can even be helpful at times.
For example, it helps us notice dangerous situations and makes us ready for action. It can also motivate us to solve problems we are facing, focusing our attention to help us complete specific tasks.
But severe or ongoing feelings of anxiety when fears and worries interfere with your daily life and your relationships can be a sign of an underlying mental health disorder. These feelings are difficult to control. Moreover, they are excessive and can last for a long time.
The symptoms of anxiety disorders may also involve frequent episodes of sudden anxiety attacks when intense feelings of terror or fear reach a peak within several minutes.
According to surveys, 19.1% of adults in the US experience anxiety each year. But although anxiety disorders are among the most common mental health issues, they can be managed with the proper help of an experienced mental health professional.
Whatever type of anxiety you have, there is a treatment for it, and recognizing the symptoms is the first step to getting relief.
In this article, we’ll explore different types of anxiety disorders, their symptoms, and treatment options to help you get a better idea of what you can do to make your anxiety manageable.
What is an anxiety disorder?
Anxiety can be described as a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease about something with an uncertain outcome. Anxiety is a normal human experience during stressful times, and although it brings some discomfort, it’s considered beneficial. It’s normal to have some anxiety if it doesn’t disrupt your everyday life. But for many people, anxiety becomes a problem.
What is the main difference between normal anxiety and problematic anxiety? It is actually between the source and the intensity of the experience. Normal anxiety is expected during certain stressful events or situations, and it’s intermittent.
On the other hand, problem anxiety is irrational and chronic, and it interferes with many life functions. Its symptoms may be very intense and can cause family, social, and work difficulties because people try to avoid anxiety-provoking situations and may isolate themselves and turn down opportunities. Problem anxiety may lead to an anxiety disorder.
When someone has an anxiety disorder, they are anxious so often that they can’t carry out day-to-day activities. Overwhelming anxiety prevents them from focusing, paralyzes them with overthinking, and causes them to doubt themselves and their abilities.
Besides, people who have anxiety disorders often overreact when something triggers their emotions and can’t control their responses to situations.
What are anxiety disorder symptoms?
Anxiety disorders are a group of related conditions rather than a single disorder, so their symptoms may vary from person to person.
Here are some of the most common mental and emotional symptoms and signs:
- Feeling nervous, restless, or tense
- Uncontrollable, obsessive thoughts
- Flashbacks of traumatic experiences
- Feelings of panic
- Trouble concentrating
- Problems with falling asleep
- Changes in appetite
- Avoiding things that trigger anxiety
There are physical symptoms as well, including:
- Shortness of breath
- Muscle tension
- Nausea and gastrointestinal problems
- Dizziness and fainting
- Shaking or trembling
- Increased heart rate
What are the causes of anxiety disorders?
No one knows exactly what causes anxiety problems. Researchers suggest that a combination of different factors plays a role. They include:
Life experiences. Difficult experiences in our childhood, adolescence, or adulthood can trigger anxiety problems, such as losing a loved one, being bullied or abused, having money problems, and being homeless.
Genetics. You may get anxiety through your genes. Research shows that if you have a close relative with anxiety problems, it increases your chances of developing an anxiety disorder.
Medical conditions. Anxiety may be triggered by an underlying health issue, for example, thyroid problems, diabetes, heart disease, etc.
What are risk factors for anxiety disorders?
There are many potential factors that may increase your risk of developing an anxiety disorder. And the more risk factors you have, the greater the likelihood that you’ll develop an anxiety disorder.
- If you endured abuse or trauma in childhood or witnessed a traumatic event, you have a higher risk of developing an anxiety disorder at some point in your life.
- Parents who demonstrate high levels of control, as well as a parental rejection of the child, are potentially related to a greater risk for anxiety.
- Drug abuse or withdrawal from many substances is also characterized by acute anxiety.
- You may be at higher risk if you have such personality traits as shyness or behavioral inhibition.
- Women are also more likely to experience anxiety than men, and researchers suggest it can be connected to such hormones as estrogen and progesterone.
- Sometimes, anxiety may be a side effect of taking certain medications, for example, those that are used for treating psychiatric problems.
What are the types of anxiety disorders?
There are several major types of anxiety disorders. Each of them has its own set of symptoms, but all of them are characterized by excessive fear or worry.
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
It’s quite a broad diagnosis because it doesn’t have unique symptoms, and they vary from person to person. You may be diagnosed with GAD if you have felt anxious for most days over 6 months, and that has significantly interfered with your daily life.
People who have GAD feel anxious about a wide range of situations and issues. They constantly worry over everyday things, and there might be no clear causes or triggers. Physical symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder may include sleep problems, restlessness, fatigue, and difficulty concentrating.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
This disorder is characterized by unwanted behaviors or thoughts that seem impossible to control and stop. Repeated and persistent thoughts are called obsessions. They cause distress, and people try to relieve it by performing specific actions (compulsions) again and again.
Here are some examples of obsessions:
- Fear of being contaminated by germs
- Intrusive thoughts of oneself doing something abusive
- Worrying about causing harm to someone
- Obsessions about symmetry or exactness
Compulsions are repetitive activities that a person who has OCD feels they have to do. Here are some examples of common compulsions:
- Performing rituals like arranging objects in a particular way
- Counting to a certain number
- Checking whether the door is locked
You may be diagnosed with OCD if your anxiety problems involve having repetitive thoughts, behaviors, or urges.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
People may develop this type of disorder after experiencing traumatic or life-threatening events, for example, being diagnosed with a life-threatening condition, a violent incident, surviving a natural disaster, a car accident, an unexpected death of a loved one, surviving a terrorist attack, traumatic childbirth, etc.
Symptoms of PTSD include flashbacks or nightmares about the traumatic experience, withdrawing from others, startling easily, hypervigilance, and avoiding situations that remind you of that event.
Anyone who goes through something they find traumatic can experience some symptoms of PTSD afterward, for example, sleeping problems or feeling numb. These symptoms are described as an acute stress reaction, and they mostly disappear within a few weeks. A person may be given a diagnosis of PTSD if their symptoms last longer than a month.
This disorder is characterized by intense, sudden panic attacks without a clear cause or trigger and constant fear of experiencing another episode. A panic attack may last between 5-20 minutes and often feature stronger feelings than other types of anxiety disorders. It can also resemble a heart attack.
Panic attacks produce physical symptoms that may include:
- Chest pain
- Feeling faint or dizzy
- Racing heartbeat
- Sweating or shivering
- Shortness of breath
A phobia is an extreme form of anxiety or fear triggered by a specific object, situation, or activity, even when there is no danger. Most phobias begin in early childhood, during the teenage years, or early adulthood.
Examples of phobias include fear of heights, fear of flying, fear of water, fear of animals (for example, spiders, snakes, or dogs), agoraphobia – fear of situations where escape might be difficult, and claustrophobia – fear of staying in confined spaces.
People who have phobias typically try to shape their lives to avoid things they consider dangerous.
Social anxiety disorder (SAD)
This disorder is characterized by an intense fear of social interactions and is also known as a social phobia. People tend to develop social anxiety disorder early in life and may appear to be extremely shy in groups or when they meet new people. They may feel significant anxiety or fear triggered by social situations, for example, workplaces, parties, or different situations when they have to talk to another person.
Typically, these people worry about judgment from other people and are afraid of social humiliation. This disorder may be associated with depression, low self-esteem, and high self-criticism.
Treatment of anxiety disorders
There are effective evidence-based treatments for anxiety disorders, but there’s no one-size-fits-all approach, so they should be tailored to the specific symptoms and diagnosis. But the most common methods are psychotherapy and medications.
Therapy for anxiety disorders
Therapy is often the most effective treatment option because it gives you the tools to manage the anxiety yourself. The goal of the therapy is to help people understand why they feel the way they feel, what their triggers are, and how they might change their reactions to them.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy, or CBT, is the most widely-used approach for treating anxiety disorders, including GAD, SAD, panic disorders, phobias, and health anxiety. It’s a short-term treatment that helps people identify inaccurate and negative thinking.
CBT teaches people to challenge negative anxious thinking, irrational beliefs, and ineffective behavior patterns and replace them with realistic, more positive thoughts. Your therapist will help you develop new ways of processing your feelings, thoughts, and behaviors and learn more effective ways of coping with life challenges.
You will be able to apply your coping skills to manage worry, fear, and panic in the future as well.
Exposure therapy is a specific type of CBT used to treat SAD, PTSD, and specific phobias and help people tolerate and calm their anxiety. Its goal is to help people cope with the overwhelming distress they experience when confronting their fears or when they are reminded of past traumas.
During exposure therapy, a therapist slowly introduces a person to anxiety-producing situations or objects and guides them to use such coping techniques as relaxation therapy/imagery or mindfulness. During the exposure, people learn to combat anxiety.
Dialectical behavior therapy
Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) was originally developed to treat people with personality disorders, but it can also be effective for people who deal with anxiety disorders. It combines behavioral principles, mindfulness, and some ideas from Zen Buddhism.
During the DBT treatment, people are taught 4 sets of skills that will allow them to regulate their emotions: mindfulness, interpersonal effectiveness, distress tolerance, and emotion regulation.
Acceptance and commitment therapy
Acceptance and commitment therapy, or ACT, is an innovative approach that strongly focuses on behavior change that is consistent with the client’s life values. ACT encourages you to embrace your feelings and thoughts rather than fighting or feeling guilty for them. ACT is particularly useful in treating GAD and depression.
Interpersonal therapy, or IPT, is a short-term supportive psychotherapy, which was originally developed for depression. It addresses interpersonal issues, and now, it is considered a potential treatment alternative for SAD.
IPT can help you learn healthy ways to express your emotions and improve your communication skills.
If you live with anxiety, and it negatively affects your day-to-day functioning, you should seek help from a mental health professional. A therapist will develop an effective treatment plan and guide you to overcome symptoms and manage your anxiety.
Several types of medications can be used to help manage some psychological symptoms. For example, benzodiazepines are short-term drugs that you can take as needed when anxiety spikes.
Some antidepressants in low doses can help relieve the symptoms when taken daily.
Tips on prevention and coping with anxiety
Not every person who feels anxious has an anxiety disorder. But if your lifestyle is stressful and unhealthy, you are more likely to feel anxious. Living with anxiety is not easy, but there are certain steps you can take to manage your emotions and prevent your anxiety from reaching the level when it becomes a diagnosis.
Here are some tips on how to manage the “normal” situational anxiety that you may experience in everyday life. These strategies can help you live the life you want.
Practice relaxation techniques
Relaxation techniques address your body’s stress response and replace it with relaxation response – it’s the state of profound rest that puts the brakes on stress and brings your mind and body to balance.
You can use different relaxation techniques to calm your mind and reduce the muscle tension that anxiety can cause. It doesn’t matter what specific technique you choose. The main thing is to try to practice these techniques regularly.
In general, relaxation techniques help you refocus your attention on something calming and increase awareness of your body.
Deep breathing exercises are the cornerstone of many other relaxation practices. Taking slow, deep, regular breaths can help you disengage your mind from anxious thoughts and make you feel calmer.
Guided imagery involves the visualization of peaceful, calming places or situations to evoke relaxation. When imagining your ideal spot to relax, you should use all your senses to make it as real as possible.
Progressive muscle relaxation helps you become more aware of physical sensations by focusing on tensing and then relaxing different muscle groups. If you practice regularly, you’ll get a better idea of how tension and complete relaxation feel like in different parts of your body.
Body scan meditation blends deep breathing with progressive muscle relaxation. It teaches you to focus your attention on various parts of your body.
Mindfulness is the practice of being aware, without judgment, and focusing your attention on the present moment without any concerns about the past or future.
Yoga combines deep breathing with movements and a series of postures. The physical aspects of this ancient practice offer a mental focus that can distract you from your racing thoughts.
It’s easy to learn the basics of these relaxation techniques, but they are skills, so you’ll need to practice them regularly to feel their anxiety-relieving power.
You should try to practice every day for at least 20 minutes and be patient. You’ll achieve a better outcome if you use relaxation techniques together with other coping methods, for example, positive thinking or exercising.
Make self-care a priority
Making self-care a part of our routine is vital for our mental health. It helps us be more confident, creative, and productive, make better decisions, communicate effectively, build better relationships, and feel happier.
When you make yourself a priority, you may notice your anxiety diminishing.
Exercise every day
Exercising can be a great natural way to cope with stress and anxiety. It helps decrease the level of stress hormones, boost endorphins, and relieve muscle tension.
Try to exercise for at least 30 minutes on most days. Running, walking, dancing, swimming – all could have an effect on minimizing your anxiety.
Get a better night’s sleep
If you don’t get enough sleep, that can trigger anxious feelings and thoughts. On the other hand, anxiety may also interfere with sleep and make you stay awake at night. It can become a frustrating cycle when the day’s stressors and worries about the future can cause you to spend sleepless nights.
So you should use some relaxation and meditation strategies and take time to wind down before you go to bed. Try to get at least 7 hours of sleep at night.
Eat a healthy diet
What we eat can influence how we feel physically and emotionally. Incorporate a healthy diet into your lifestyle, and you’ll feel more at ease in stressful situations.
You should avoid high-fat, sugary, processed foods, caffeine, and alcohol. Instead, your diet should include foods that contain omega-3 fatty acids, for example, flaxseed, walnuts, and salmon.
Connect with other people
Isolation and loneliness can trigger or worsen anxiety. And when you feel anxious, you need a strong support network. If you tell someone about your fears and worries, these worries will feel less overwhelming, and you’ll get some relief.
Share your concerns and worries with a loved one or join a self-help or support group.
Plan worry time
It may sound strange to plan to worry, but mental health professionals actually recommend that you choose a time to think about your fears and worries on purpose. Try setting aside 10-20 minutes every day to identify what is bothering you.
You may also use journaling to jot down your feelings and think about what triggers your anxiety and what you can do about it.
Be kind to yourself
Accept your emotions and embrace them as an opportunity to care for yourself in a healthy way. Being anxious is not your flaw – it’s a part of being human. There are hundreds of thousands of people who are feeling anxious like you, so there is nothing to be ashamed of.
Remember, it’s okay to ask for help.
It’s quite normal to experience occasional anxiety, which occurs as a protective biological response to high-stakes or potentially dangerous situations. But anxiety can become a mental health problem if it impacts people’s ability to live their lives as fully as they want to.
People with anxiety disorders frequently have intense, excessive, uncontrollable, and persistent worries and fears about everyday circumstances that interfere with their daily activities, making it hard to do things they enjoy.
Anxiety disorders can be debilitating, but they are highly treatable. Their symptoms usually improve with psychotherapy (cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy, prolonged exposure therapy, etc.), medications, or both.
There are also many things you can do yourself to help reduce your anxiety and regain control of your life. Effective options include lifestyle changes, relaxation strategies, grounding techniques, meditation, and yoga.
If you deal with any form of anxiety, consider online therapy at Calmerry. Whether you need help for GAD, OCD, or high-functioning anxiety, working with a licensed therapist, you’ll be able to learn effective coping skills to manage your symptoms.
Iryna is a passionate content writer and life-long learner with an ongoing curiosity to learn new things. She has a Bachelor's degree in Health Sciences and Special Education and is studying for a Master's degree in Psychology. Iryna uses her knowledge and writing skills to create well-researched articles that educate readers and empower them to take charge of their mental health and practice self-care.Read more