What is an anxiety disorder?

An anxiety disorder is a type of mental health condition. If you have an anxiety disorder, you may respond to certain things and situations with fear and dread. You may also experience physical signs of anxiety, such as a pounding heart and sweating.

It’s normal to have some anxiety. You may feel anxious or nervous if you have to tackle a problem at work, go to an interview, take a test or make an important decision. And anxiety can even be beneficial. For example, anxiety helps us notice dangerous situations and focuses our attention, so we stay safe.

But an anxiety disorder goes beyond the regular nervousness and slight fear you may feel from time to time. An anxiety disorder happens when:

  • Anxiety interferes with your ability to function.
  • You often overreact when something triggers your emotions.
  • You can’t control your responses to situations.

Anxiety disorders can make it difficult to get through the day. Fortunately, there are several effective treatments for anxiety disorders.

Who is at risk for anxiety disorders?

A mix of genetic and environmental factors can raise a person’s risk for developing anxiety disorders. You may be at higher risk if you have or had:

  • Certain personality traits, such as shyness or behavioral inhibition — feeling uncomfortable with, and avoiding, unfamiliar people, situations or environments.
  • Stressful or traumatic events in early childhood or adulthood.
  • Family history of anxiety or other mental health conditions.
  • Certain physical conditions, including thyroid problems and heart arrhythmias (unusual heart rhythms).

Anxiety disorders occur more often in women. Researchers are still studying why that happens. It may come from women’s hormones, especially those that fluctuate throughout the month. The hormone testosterone may play a role, too — men have more, and it may ease anxiety. It’s also possible that women are less likely to seek treatment, so the anxiety worsens.

What are the types of anxiety disorders?

There are several types of anxiety disorders, including:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).
  • Panic disorder.
  • Phobias.
  • Separation anxiety.

Other mental health conditions share features with anxiety disorders. These include post-traumatic stress disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

What is generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)?

With GAD, you may feel extreme and unrealistic worry and tension — even if there’s nothing to trigger these feelings. Most days, you may worry a lot about various topics, including health, work, school and relationships. You may feel that the worry continues from one thing to the next.

Physical symptoms of GAD can include restlessness, difficulty concentrating and sleeping problems.

What is a panic disorder?

If you have a panic disorder, you get intense, sudden panic attacks. These attacks often feature stronger, more intense feelings than other types of anxiety disorders.

The feelings of terror may start suddenly and unexpectedly or they may come from a trigger, like facing a situation you dread. Panic attacks can resemble heart attacks. If there’s any chance you’re experiencing a heart attack, go to the emergency room. It’s better to err on the side of caution and have a healthcare professional check you.

During a panic attack, you may experience:

Panic attacks are very upsetting. People with panic disorder often spend a lot of time worrying about the next panic attack. They also try to avoid situations that might trigger an attack.

What are phobias?

Phobias are an intense fear of certain situations or objects. Some of these fears may make sense, such as a fear of snakes. But often, the level of fear doesn’t match the situation.

Like with other anxiety disorders, you may spend a lot of time trying to avoid situations that may trigger the phobia.

A specific phobia, or a simple phobia, is an intense fear of a particular object or situation. It may cause you to avoid everyday situations. Some specific phobias include fear of:

  • Animals, such as spiders, dogs or snakes.
  • Blood.
  • Flying.
  • Heights.
  • Injections (shots).

Social anxiety disorder

Healthcare providers used to call this condition social phobia. You may have overwhelming worry and self-consciousness with daily social situations. You may worry about others judging you or you may be anxious that you’ll embarrass yourself or open yourself up to ridicule. People with social anxiety disorder may avoid social situations entirely.

Agoraphobia

If you have agoraphobia, you may have an intense fear of being overwhelmed or unable to get help. Usually, you have a fear of two or more of these environments:

  • Enclosed spaces.
  • Lines or crowds.
  • Open spaces.
  • Places outside your house.
  • Public transportation.

In severe situations, a person with agoraphobia may not leave the house at all. They’re so terrified of having a panic attack in public that they prefer to stay inside.

What is separation anxiety disorder?

This condition mostly happens to children or teens, who may worry about being away from their parents. Children with separation anxiety disorder may fear that their parents will be hurt in some way or not come back as promised. It happens a lot in preschoolers. But older children and adults who experience a stressful event may have separation anxiety disorder as well.

How common are anxiety disorders?

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health conditions in the U.S. They affect about 40 million Americans. They happen to nearly 30% of adults at some point. Anxiety disorders most often begin in childhood, adolescence or early adulthood.

How do anxiety disorders affect children?

It’s normal for children to feel some amount of anxiety, worry or fear at certain points. For example, a child may feel scared of a thunderstorm or barking dog. A teenager might get anxious about an upcoming test or school dance.

But sometimes, children approach these situations with overwhelming dread or they can’t stop thinking about all the fears tied to one of these events. It may seem that none of your comforts help. These children often get “stuck” on their worries. They have a hard time doing their daily activities, like going to school, playing and falling asleep. They’re extremely reluctant to try something new.

When thinking about your child’s anxiety levels, “getting stuck” is key. It separates the regular worries of childhood from an anxiety disorder that needs professional help. If the anxiety or worry interferes with your child’s ability to function, it may be time to seek help

What causes anxiety disorders?

Anxiety disorders are like other forms of mental illness. They don’t come from personal weakness, character flaws or problems with upbringing. But researchers don’t know exactly what causes anxiety disorders. They suspect a combination of factors plays a role:

  • Chemical imbalance: Severe or long-lasting stress can change the chemical balance that controls your mood. Experiencing a lot of stress over a long period can lead to an anxiety disorder.
  • Environmental factors: Experiencing a trauma might trigger an anxiety disorder, especially in someone who has inherited a higher risk to start.
  • Heredity: Anxiety disorders tend to run in families. You may inherit them from one or both parents, like eye color.

What are the symptoms of an anxiety disorder?

Symptoms vary depending on the type of anxiety disorder you have. General symptoms of an anxiety disorder include:

Physical symptoms:

Mental symptoms:

  • Feeling panic, fear and uneasiness.
  • Nightmares.
  • Repeated thoughts or flashbacks of traumatic experiences.
  • Uncontrollable, obsessive thoughts.

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Inability to be still and calm.
  • Ritualistic behaviors, such as washing hands repeatedly.
  • Trouble sleeping.

How do I know if my child has an anxiety disorder?

Anxiety-related problems in children share four common features. The anxiety:

  • Is typically a fear or fixation that interferes with the ability to enjoy life, get through the day or complete tasks.
  • Is puzzling to both the child and parents.
  • Does not improve after logical explanations to address the worries.
  • Is treatable.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 12/17/2020.

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