Do you feel anxious all the time? Do you struggle with panic attacks? Does it seem like you can’t stop the worry no matter how hard you try? You’re not alone. Research shows that over one-third of American adults meet the criteria for an anxiety disorder at some point during their lives.
Anxiety is an umbrella term for the numerous phobias and fears people face. There are several different types of anxiety, and various symptoms exist on a broad spectrum. In other words, no two anxiety conditions look exactly alike. Let’s get into what you need to know.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) refers to excessive and uncontrollable worry during everyday life. People with GAD tend to feel anxious even in relatively benign situations. They find it challenging to relax or calm down. Even if they know their worries are irrational, they find it challenging to change their beliefs.
GAD can cause physical symptoms, including:
- Headaches and migraines.
- Rapid heartbeat.
- Sweaty palms and “feeling hot” constantly.
- Numbness or tingling.
- Gastrointestinal distress.
- Elevated blood pressure.
GAD can also cause emotional and psychological symptoms, including:
- Racing thoughts.
- An impending sense of doom.
- Relationship problems.
- Concentration issues.
- Insomnia and nightmares.
GAD symptoms may emerge at any age. Unfortunately, people may overlook symptoms in children and adolescents. They might dismiss them for just “going through a phase.”
In addition, GAD tends to be more common in women than men. Ongoing exposure to stressful events and having a family history of anxiety disorders can be significant risk factors for developing this condition. Therapy and medication for anxiety can be incredibly effective.
Panic disorder can result from a fear of experiencing panic attacks. A panic attack refers to a brief, intense episode of elevated anxiety. This episode can mirror that of a heart attack or stroke- it often includes a sense of dizziness, chest tightness, racing heartbeat, and shortness of breath. Some people also report feeling like they are choking or being strangled to death.
Panic attacks can undoubtedly feel frightening for individuals and their loved ones. Panic disorder may develop when people experience recurrent, persistent attacks without warning. Over time, the fear of having another attack happen may create psychological distress.
Common symptoms of panic disorder include:
- Experiencing ongoing, frequent panic attacks.
- Feeling afraid of future panic attacks.
- Significantly changing your routine due to this fear.
- Elevated symptoms of anxiety.
While panic attacks are relatively brief (about 5-10 minutes), some symptoms may linger for several hours. As a result, many people feel exhausted by recurrent episodes. While there isn’t a specific cause for panic attacks, risk factors can include having a preexisting history of anxiety, experiencing heightened levels of stress, and substance abuse.
Social Anxiety Disorder/Social Phobia
People with social anxiety disorder experience immense distress in social situations. They often fear being embarrassed or ashamed when around other people.
As a result, some people may avoid large groups, or any setting they think might trigger the phobia. They might also turn down significant opportunities because they fear rejection, humiliation, or other forms of interpersonal judgment.
Social anxiety disorder isn’t just shyness. While most people feel nervous in new social settings, this condition extends beyond general worry. It can become an all-consuming fear.
Common social anxiety disorder symptoms include:
- Feeling panicked (or having panic attacks) in social settings.
- Having difficulty speaking in front of others (stumbling, whispering, repeating, or interrupting often).
- Worrying intensely about the event for several days or weeks in advance.
- Ruminating about the social interaction after it occurred.
- Fearing that other people can notice the anxiety.
- Relying on alcohol or drugs to feel comfortable in social settings.
- Avoiding situations or people that may trigger anxiety.
In more extreme cases, social anxiety can occur in all social settings. But it can also be more exclusive to one or two situations. For example, you might only experience symptoms when you’re asked to give a speech or presentation. Or, the anxiety might manifest when mingling at a party where you don’t know anyone.
Separation Anxiety Disorder
Separation anxiety disorder (SAD) refers to the immense distress someone might face when away from their caregivers or loved ones. This condition often manifests in childhood, and it can begin as early as infant or toddlerhood.
While most young children initially cry or protest when their parent leaves, they tend to outgrow this behavior by around three years old. SAD is an extreme distress response to actual or perceived separation.
Some other common symptoms of separation anxiety disorder include:
- Recurrent distress about being away from a caregiver (or anticipating being away).
- Consistent fears about losing loved ones to illness or disasters.
- Refusing to leave home.
- Excessive worry about being lost, kidnapped, or otherwise separated permanently.
- Wanting to sleep with the caregiver and be close at all times.
- Frequent complaints of stomachaches or headaches.
- Ongoing nightmares about separation.
- Extreme tantrums or panic when getting dropped off for school or other activities.
Children with more anxious temperaments may be more prone to developing SAD. Furthermore, a history of trauma or parental separation may exacerbate the risk.
Agoraphobia refers to an extreme fear of open or crowded places. It also often entails the fear of leaving one’s home. These fears typically arise because such public settings may feel tremendously unsafe and not offer apparent escape plans.
Many times, agoraphobia is closely connected with panic attacks. For example, people might develop agoraphobia because they fear having a panic attack in particular settings, such as in a grocery store or on the bus. In extreme cases, agoraphobia prevents people from leaving their homes altogether.
Other symptoms of agoraphobia include:
- Feeling overly anxious when exposed to the triggering situation or location.
- Needing a companion to support you when you leave home.
- Avoiding important events or people due to anxiety.
- Facing financial or work problems due to not leaving your home.
- Persistent panic attacks when out in public.
Like other anxiety conditions, agoraphobia can emerge at any age. However, symptoms often manifest in the late teen or early adult years. Histories of panic attacks, ongoing stress, and having an anxious temperament can all increase the risk of developing agoraphobia.
A specific phobia refers to excessive fear and dread about particular situations. Almost anything can become a specific phobia, but common ones include fears of flying, spiders, heights, and being in crowded spaces.
Of course, it’s normal to feel anxious in certain situations. For instance, many people feel jittery when they fly on an airplane. But someone with a specific phobia may find it impossible to relax. Their mind will obsess over the worst-case scenario, and they may spend weeks overthinking about their fear.
Other symptoms of specific phobia include:
- Immediate distress when exposed to the particular fear.
- Recognizing that the fear is irrational, but feeling unable to contain it.
- Trying to avoid the fear at all costs.
- Acting irrationally or recklessly because of fear.
- Increased physical symptoms (increased heartbeat, difficulty breathing, dizziness).
- Extreme tantrums (seen in children).
Phobias may develop due to specific negative experiences. For example, a bad spider bite can naturally instill fear of spiders. But in many cases, phobias arise due to a combination of genetic and environmental factors.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
OCD is an anxiety disorder characterized by ongoing obsessions and repetitive compulsions. People with OCD experience disturbing, uncontrollable thoughts (known as obsessions) that can be distracting and burdensome. They engage in ritualistic behaviors (compulsions) to alleviate their obsessions.
Common obsessions include:
- Fear of contamination and germs.
- Taboo sexual or religious thoughts.
- Aggressively harmful thoughts about oneself or others.
- Needing order or perfection.
Common compulsions include:
- Excessive hand-washing, cleaning, and showering.
- Arranging and rearranging items in a particular order.
- Checking and re-checking something several times (seeing if the oven is turned off or if the car door is locked).
See also: Four Types of OCD
People with OCD generally recognize that their thoughts and behaviors are excessive. Unfortunately, they still find it challenging to change their patterns. As a result, they often spend several hours a day engaging in their obsessions and compulsions.
OCD can also emerge at any age, but symptoms tend to first present themselves in childhood or adolescence. The condition tends to be more recognizable during the younger years. As people get older, they may become craftier in concealing their obsessions and compulsions.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
PTSD can arise after experiencing a traumatic episode. While most people feel some anxiety, depression, or numbness after a life, PTSD can severely disrupt an individual’s emotional well-being.
Common symptoms of PTSD include:
- Experiencing recurrent flashbacks about the trauma.
- Feeling extremely responsible or guilty over what happened.
- Avoiding certain people, places, or situations reminiscent of the trauma.
- Increased agitation.
- Feeling easily startled.
- Difficult remembering the event.
- Losing interest in normal activities or relationships.
- Extreme negative thoughts about oneself or the world.
- Physical symptoms (wetting the bed or forgetting how to talk) in young children.
Not everyone who experiences trauma develops PTSD, but risk factors include getting physically hurt, having limited support after the event, and having a history of mental illness or substance abuse. Furthermore, a history of complex trauma may increase the likelihood of PTSD.
PTSD can happen at any age. However, symptoms may worsen over time, and some people may experience heightened distress several months or years after experiencing the trauma.
Selective mutism is an anxiety disorder that makes it feel impossible for people to speak in specific situations. It usually begins in childhood, and it can persist throughout adulthood.
Many people first notice symptoms of selective mutism in early childhood, between ages two and four. That’s around the time children start interacting more with people outside their family. The main red flag is when the child is unable to speak to others- it can appear as if they are entirely frozen.
Other symptoms of selective mutism include:
- Presenting as extremely shy or withdrawn.
- Avoiding eye contact with strangers or anyone beyond their immediate family.
- Seeming disinterested in other people or events.
- Clinginess to caregivers.
- Tense and stiff body language.
- Becoming defensive or upset when confronted by their caregivers.
Some people with selective mutism cannot respond whatsoever. Others might use gestures or nod their head to answer questions. Some can whisper or respond with a few words.
Selective mutism doesn’t have an exact cause. However, it has associations with speech and language disorders, PTSD, anxiety conditions, and sensory integration dysfunction.
Substance/Medication-Induced Anxiety Disorder
Substance/medication-induced anxiety may occur when anxiety symptoms emerge due to specific alcohol or drugs. People often use these substances to treat anxiety- they don’t realize that taking more than prescribed or withdrawal can exacerbate anxiety’s effects.
Sometimes, anxiety happens immediately. For example, certain medications like stimulants are associated with panic and paranoia. Therefore, the individual might feel anxiety symptoms right after taking the drug.
Other times, the anxiety occurs during withdrawal. For example, withdrawing from alcohol, benzodiazepines, caffeine, or opioids can trigger irritation, panic, and restlessness. Symptoms may last for several days or weeks after last taking the drug.
Common symptoms of substance/medication-induced anxiety disorder include:
- Ongoing sleep problems due to anxiety.
- Feeling that things will never improve (or that bad things will keep happening).
- Memory impairments.
- Sense of losing control or “going crazy.”
- Recurrent chills or hot flashes.
- Difficulties with breathing or severe chest pain.
- Psychosis symptoms.
If you had anxiety symptoms before taking the drug, your symptoms (even if they have progressively worsened) would not meet the criteria for this diagnosis. The symptoms must be separate from any mental health symptoms you have had in the past.
It’s essential to understand the different types of anxiety when assessing your symptoms (or when supporting a loved one). Keep in mind that it’s also possible for symptoms to overlap.
Fortunately, anxiety is treatable. Reaching out for professional support can help you identify your triggers, practice new coping strategies, and make a tremendous difference in how you feel.