Anxiety disorders are considered the most common mental illness in America, impacting 40 million adults. That averages to about 1 in 5 people. Source
Anxiety disorders are complex, and there isn’t a cure for them. However, the right treatment can help you manage your symptoms and enjoy a meaningful and productive life. Knowing the warning signs is the first step toward getting the help you need.
Overview of Anxiety Disorders
Everyone experiences anxiety from time to time. However, anxiety disorders are chronic, clinical conditions that affect daily life. Someone with anxiety often experiences low self-esteem, occupational or academic problems, and relationship issues.
Anxiety disorders exist on a spectrum ranging from mild to severe. Symptoms generally first emerge during childhood or adolescence, and they persist into adulthood.
It’s important to note that anxiety itself is not a mental health condition. Anxiety disorders are instead classified into the following categories:
Generalized Anxiety Disorder
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) refers to excessive worry that affects everyday functioning. The anxiety is global, meaning that people with this condition worry about a variety of issues (i.e. relationships, health, career, money), and they often find it hard to relax or trust that things will work out.
Social Anxiety Disorder
Social anxiety disorder refers to anxiety within social settings, and it correlates with worrying about rejection, social likeability, and fitting in with others. People with social anxiety may struggle with public speaking, meeting new people, or doing everyday tasks in public. This condition often affects self-esteem and makes it hard to build meaningful relationships.
Agoraphobia refers to being afraid of public spaces and not having a viable escape route. People with agoraphobia may struggle to drive or use public transportation. They might also avoid enclosed places, being in large crowds, or being outside of their home without the support of another person.
Panic disorder refers to recurrent panic attacks and the subsequent fear of having an unexpected panic attack. Sometimes, this disorder coincides with agoraphobia. Panic attacks are short episodes of complex physical symptoms, such as chest pain, trembling, chills or hot flashes, and feeling dizzy. The symptoms can be so intense that people sometimes think they are having a heart attack.
Specific phobia entails an intense fear of a specific situation, object, or setting that is generally not considered dangerous. People generally know the fear is exaggerated, but that insight doesn’t change how they feel. Some common phobias include spiders, airplanes, needles, and heights.
Separation Anxiety Disorder
Separation anxiety disorder means having immense fear about being separated from an attachment figure. This disorder affects both children and adults, although it’s more common in children. There’s intense worry about being hurt (or a loved one being hurt), and this worry can coincide with clinginess, school or work problems, and issues with other relationships.
Common Anxiety Symptoms
While every case of anxiety is unique, knowing some of the typical symptoms may help you better understand your mental health.
Persistent worry: Anxiety is classified as excessive, irrational worry about things going wrong. The worry feels hard to control, even if you know it’s disproportionate. Some people try to “power through” this worry, and others avoid certain tasks or situations to prevent exposing themselves to their fears.
Irritability: It’s common for people with anxiety to also experience anger or frustration. You may find yourself lashing out at others without really knowing why. Or you might find that your temper feels short-fused, even when things are “going well.”
Feeling like things are out of control: With anxiety, there’s often this sense that things are terribly out of control. This can feel incredibly unnerving, and you might do everything you can to try to maintain a sense of power, structure, or order.
Headaches: Anxiety can trigger headaches and migraines. Sometimes chronic headaches are the first indicator someone is experiencing anxiety.
Muscle tension: Anxiety causes you to automatically tense up your muscles. Over time, this leads to chronic stiffness, and it may result in more serious pain. Constant stress also impacts the immune system, which can make you prone to various infections.
Concentration problems: Anxiety naturally consumes significant headspace, making it challenging to focus on school, work, or other tasks. Many people struggle with poor focus or distractibility, and they often find it harder to be in the present moment.
Relationship issues: Anxiety can cause relationship issues, particularly if someone isn’t managing their symptoms well. Anxiety may trigger you to isolate yourself from loved ones, communicate poorly, or overly depend on others for emotional support. These behaviors can put a significant strain on your relationships.
Less Common Anxiety Symptoms
We’re still learning about how anxiety manifests in the body and in everyday behavior. Emerging research shows that anxiety is largely neurobiological. That said, some people have these lesser-known symptoms without recognizing them as anxiety symptoms.
Perfectionism: Anxiety is rooted in worrying about the worst-case scenario. To cope with this distress, some people over-function in their everyday life. There’s this prevailing belief that if they do things “perfectly,” they will gain a greater sense of control.
Fatigue: Anxiety can flood your body’s fight-or-flight response system. All that constant worry consumes brain activity, which often causes people to feel tired. Anxiety can also coincide with sleep problems, such as insomnia, and those symptoms often exacerbate more stress.
Indecisiveness: Indecisiveness can be a companion to perfectionism. If you feel preoccupied with making the best decision, you might find yourself feeling paralyzed by all the potential options. As a result, it feels impossible to make the right choice.
Avoidance behaviors: Some people with anxiety under-function by procrastinating, withdrawing, or otherwise avoiding what needs to be done. This is often an attempt to cope with the immense stress, but the strategy generally backfires.
Gastrointestinal distress: Stress impacts the balance of gut microbe, which can lead to stomach problems. Furthermore, people with anxiety may be more likely to eat unhealthy foods, smoke, drink alcohol, or drink large amounts of caffeine, all of which can cause GI issues.
Dissociation: Dissociation refers to a disconnection from thoughts, feelings, and experiences, and it’s a way the body involuntarily tries to cope with stress. It may feel like you’re “watching” yourself or feel detached from your surroundings. This symptom is often more common in people with trauma histories.
Cold hands or feet: When the fight-or-flight system is activated, the rain directs blood flow toward vital organs, which moves it away from the extremities. This can lead you to feel extremely cold, even when it’s warm outside.
Substance use: Many people with substance use issues have underlying anxiety. Drugs and alcohol act as a way to self-medicate anxious symptoms. In the short term, these methods may provide some immediate relief. However, they only pause the distress. In addition, the consequences due to substance use often make anxiety worse.
Do You Need a Diagnosis?
If you recognize having symptoms of anxiety, talk to your primary care physician. Your doctor may want to rule out other potential medical concerns first.
A doctor, psychiatrist, or therapist can diagnose anxiety disorders. They will review the history of your symptoms, the frequency and intensity, and how they impact your overall well-being.
That said, you don’t need to have a diagnosed anxiety disorder to receive support. Even if you don’t have enough symptoms to qualify for a diagnosis, that doesn’t mean your anxiety isn’t real. If you’re struggling with your emotions or behaviors, that’s enough reason to seek support.
Many people find that having a diagnosis is helpful when seeking therapy or medication. For example, if you intend to use your health insurance for mental health treatment, your insurance may require a diagnosis to initiate and maintain care.
Furthermore, a diagnosis can be validating in better understanding your symptoms. Your anxiety is not your fault. You are not choosing to experience such distress. Grounding yourself in this truth can be helpful if you struggle with low self-esteem.
What’s the Best Anxiety Treatment?
There is no one best treatment for anxiety. Different methods work for different people, and you may need to try a few different approaches before finding what’s best for you. The most important part is commitment. While you aren’t responsible for having a mental health condition, you are responsible for how you take care of yourself and treat others.
Talk therapy: Talk therapy is an umbrella term for individual psychotherapy. A therapist who specializes in anxiety can help you better understand your triggers and emotional responses. They also will support you as you navigate various life stressors.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT is often recommended for anxiety. CBT focuses on how thoughts, feelings, and behaviors intersect. Learning how to manage anxious thoughts can help you cope with stress better.
Exposure therapy: Exposure therapy is a type of therapy that focuses on confronting feared situations. With a therapist, you will gently expose yourself until you feel less reactive to your anxiety triggers. This treatment is known to help treat specific phobias.
Somatic therapy: Somatic therapy refers to body-centered work that emphasizes the connection between the mind and body. This helps you learn to get in touch with your bodily sensations. This treatment is helpful for all anxiety conditions and can be especially beneficial if someone also has PTSD or trauma symptoms.
Family therapy: If a child or teenager has anxiety, a therapist may recommend family therapy. This type of therapy aims to use family involvement as a way to support mental health. In addition to practicing healthy coping skills, everyone also learns new ways to communicate with one another.
Antidepressants: Antidepressants are often prescribed for anxiety. These medications work by impacting serotonin and norepinephrine, and they can also be helpful for people who have comorbid depression. They can take several weeks to work, but they are not habit-forming.
Anti-anxiety medication: Anti-anxiety medications include benzodiazepines, which provide quick relief for managing stress and worry. They work by enhancing the neurotransmitter GABA. People build a tolerance to them, so they’re only designed for short-term treatment.
Holistic lifestyle changes: Eating nutritious foods, getting plenty of physical movement, identifying gratitude, engaging in healthy relationships, and practicing mindfulness can all help reduce anxiety.
Many people have anxiety, and symptoms often ebb and flow throughout one’s lifetime. You will likely notice that your anxiety worsens when you feel stressed or out of control. You may also recognize how anxiety underlies other physical or mental health conditions.
Learning how to recognize your triggers and manage your emotional states can help you feel more empowered. If you’re struggling, you deserve to reach out for help. Having the right support can make all the difference in how you feel.