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What is an anxiety disorder?

Anxiety is a normal human emotion. Many people feel anxious, or nervous, when faced with a problem at work, or before taking a test or making an important decision. Anxiety disorders, however, are different. They can cause such distress that it interferes with a person's ability to lead a normal life.

An anxiety disorder is a serious mental illness. People with anxiety disorders respond to certain things or situations with fear and dread, as well as physical signs of anxiety such as a pounding heart and sweating. For people with anxiety disorders, worry and fear are constant and overwhelming, and can be crippling. An anxiety disorder is diagnosed if the person's response is not appropriate for the situation, if the person cannot control the response or if the anxiety interferes with normal functioning. Anxiety disorders can get worse if not treated; however, effective treatments are available.

What are the types of anxiety disorders?

There are several recognized anxiety disorders, including the following:

Panic disorder

People with this disorder have feelings of terror that strike suddenly and repeatedly with no warning. Other symptoms of a panic attack include sweating, chest pain, palpitations (unpleasant sensations of irregular heartbeats) and a feeling of choking, which might make the person feel like he or she is having a heart attack or "going crazy."

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)

People with OCD are plagued by constant thoughts or fears that cause them to perform certain rituals or routines. The disturbing thoughts are called obsessions, and the rituals are called compulsions. An example is a person with an unreasonable fear of germs who constantly washes his or her hands.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

PTSD is a condition that can develop following a traumatic and/or terrifying event, such as a sexual or physical assault, the unexpected death of a loved one, or a natural disaster. People with PTSD often have lasting and frightening thoughts and memories of the event, and tend to be emotionally numb.

Social anxiety disorder

Also called social phobia, social anxiety disorder involves overwhelming worry and self-consciousness about everyday social situations. The worry often centers on a fear of being judged by others, or behaving in a way that might cause embarrassment or lead to ridicule.

Specific phobias

A specific phobia is an intense fear of a specific object or situation, such as snakes, heights or flying. The level of fear usually is inappropriate to the situation and might cause the person to avoid common, everyday situations.

Generalized anxiety disorder

This disorder involves excessive, unrealistic worry and tension, even if there is little or nothing to provoke the anxiety.

How common are anxiety disorders?

Anxiety disorders affect about 40 million adult Americans.They are the most common mental illnesses in the U.S. Most anxiety disorders begin in childhood, adolescence and early adulthood. They occur more often in women than in men.

What causes anxiety disorders?

The exact cause of anxiety disorders is not known; but anxiety disorders — like other forms of mental illness — are not the result of personal weakness, a character flaw or poor upbringing. As scientists continue their research on mental illness, it is becoming clear that many of these disorders are caused by a combination of factors, including biology and environmental stresses.

Like certain illnesses, such as diabetes, anxiety disorders might be caused by chemical imbalances in the body. Studies have shown that severe or long-lasting stress can change the balance of chemicals in the brain that control mood. Studies also have shown that anxiety disorders run in families, which means that they can be inherited from one or both parents, like hair or eye color. In addition, certain environmental factors — such as a trauma or significant event — might trigger an anxiety disorder in people who have an inherited susceptibility to developing the disorder.

What are the symptoms of an anxiety disorder?

Symptoms vary depending on the type of anxiety disorder, but general symptoms of anxiety include:

  • Feelings of panic, fear and uneasiness
  • Uncontrollable, obsessive thoughts
  • Repeated thoughts or flashbacks of traumatic experiences
  • Nightmares
  • Ritualistic behaviors, such as repeated hand washing
  • Problems sleeping
  • Cold or sweaty hands
  • Shortness of breath
  • Palpitations
  • An inability to be still and calm
  • Dry mouth
  • Numbness or tingling in the hands or feet
  • Nausea
  • Muscle tension