More Than Nerves: The Six Types Of Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety disorders are one of the largest groups of mental health disorders and a leading cause of disability in both high- and low-income countries. 

Feeling anxious about a stressful situation at work, making important decisions, and even before taking a test is normal. It’s a physiological response from your brain that warns you of potential danger, keeps you alert, and makes sure you are physically prepared for certain situations. 

Anxiety-related disorders, however, differ from these occasional feelings of nervousness. They are triggered when the fear and worry become persistent, which can feel overwhelming.

Up to a third of people worldwide¹ will experience an anxiety disorder during their lifetime, with 18% of the US population² affected each year. 

Given the disruptions caused by anxiety disorders on your life, being concerned about them is understandable. Fortunately, they’re treatable, and there is a range of treatment options available. 

To find the most suitable treatment for your anxiety disorder, it’s important to understand the six types, their causes, probable symptoms, and when to consult a doctor about it. 

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Types of anxiety disorders

According to the National Institute of Mental Health³, anxiety disorders are a blanket term referring to a range of conditions where worry, fear, or panic are experienced excessively. 

These conditions can seriously impact your ability to react appropriately to certain situations; they can affect your ability to function in your daily life, including at home, in school, and at work.

Here are the six most common types of anxiety disorders according to the American Psychiatric Association⁴:

1. Generalized anxiety disorder

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is a common and disabling disorder that may make you feel extremely worried and anxious for no apparent reason or cause. In some cases, this worry can be triggered by everyday things such as work, school, and finances. 

GAD affects tens of millions of people worldwide, including around 6.8 million adults in the US.² The anxiety and tension in GAD are often persistent, lasting up to six months or more, and may cause you to experience the following:

  • You feel worried about several events and activities, imagining various scenarios and responses

  • You find it difficult to stop worrying

  • You find that your anxiety makes it difficult to carry out daily activities and have normal interactions.

Physical symptoms of GAD

GAD may also present with physical symptoms.

  • Easily fatigued

  • Feeling on edge or threatened

  • Restless or irritable

  • Sleep disturbances (either having difficulty falling/staying asleep or having poor quality of sleep)

  • Difficulties in concentrating

  • Muscle tension

Risk factors

While it’s not fully known yet what causes GAD, evidence shows that various factors may increase the risk of GAD, including the following:

  • Genetic background

  • Brain chemistry

  • Life experiences

  • Biological factors

  • Environmental factors 

2. Panic disorder

Panic disorders are characterized by sudden and recurring panic attacks with at least one month of worrying about them or changing day-to-day behavior because of them.  

Panic disorders affect 2–3% of Americans each year,² with women twice as likely to be more affected than men. This is different from being worried in fearful situations. Panic disorders can cause so much stress and anxiety that you may call an ambulance out of fear that something may be wrong with your health. 

If you have panic attacks, you can experience extremely intense episodes of fear that can last a few minutes or longer, and you often worry about recurring attacks. The recurrence of these attacks can occur as often as several times per day or as little as a few times a year. 

Symptoms of panic disorders 

Like GAD, people with panic disorders often present with a combination of physical and psychological symptoms, including the following:

The causes of panic attacks in panic disorders are unknown. However, many individuals who experience panic attacks avoid certain situations or areas where they had an attack before, fearing it may happen again. 

Because panic attacks are linked to a range of disorders, this can lead to misdiagnosis of other conditions such as agoraphobia (extreme fear of places and situations that may cause panic or embarrassment), heart problems, or thyroid issues. 

However, it’s important to note that panic attacks in panic disorders occur without warning and usually without reason. This is important, as panic attacks are not limited to panic disorders and can occur in other anxiety-related disorders or substance use disorders.

3. Social anxiety disorder

People with social anxiety disorder (SAD) often experience intense fear in social or performance situations for at least six months. 

Also known as “social phobia,” SAD is the third most common⁵ psychiatric condition diagnosed in the US, and it affects approximately 15 million adults⁶. 

Having SAD is different from being shy. SAD can cause you to view public situations as painful and distressing. You worry that you may act in a way that others will heavily judge, leading you to feel embarrassed and even humiliated. 

This can be disruptive to daily life as it may cause you to avoid social situations, making it harder to form and maintain relationships.

Symptoms of social anxiety 

People with social anxiety may experience physical and psychological symptoms in feared situations. Some may be obvious, but others, such as in the following list, are more subtle:

4. Phobias

Phobias are fear reactions or anxieties caused by certain situations or objects. Phobias affect 19 million people in the US² and often cause fear or anxiety that is disproportionate to the actual threat. 

Phobias can disrupt daily lives and activities, limit work efficiency, and in some cases, can strain relationships. Although you may know that such fear isn’t normal, you feel powerless to stop it. 

Types of phobias 

While some phobias develop in childhood, most occur unexpectedly. Phobias can be categorized⁷ into the following subcategories:

  • Animals—fear of spiders, snakes, insects, and mice

  • The natural environment—fear of heights, water, and storms

  • Medicine—fear of blood, needles, medical procedures, and germs

  • Typical situations—fear of flying, public transportation, enclosed spaces, and elevators

The causes of phobias are unknown; however, researchers understand that they can develop from responses to traumatic events⁸, genetics⁹, or injuries. 

Nonetheless, the fear and anxiety from specific phobias can lead to dysfunctional behaviors, like a persistent or excessive fear of particular objects, activities, or situations, or avoiding situations that may invoke anxiety and feeling powerless when the situation is unavoidable.

Symptoms of phobias 

People suffering from specific phobias may experience the following when faced with their source of fear: 

  • Rapid heartbeats

  • Sweating

  • Shortness of breath

  • Shakiness or trembling

  • Nausea

  • Rapid speech or an inability to speak

  • Dry mouth

  • Tightness in the chest

5. Obsessive-compulsive disorder

Anxious thoughts can be helpful at times, and the corresponding physiological responses prepare our bodies to face certain situations. 

However, when these thoughts consume you to the point that it leads to repetitive rituals to control or eliminate that anxiety, you may have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). 

Affecting around 2.2 million people¹⁰ in the US alone, OCD is characterized by obsessions and compulsions. 

As defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, obsessions are “recurrent and persistent thoughts, impulses, or images that are experienced and perceived to be intrusive and inappropriate, causing marked anxiety or distress.” 

Compulsions are repetitive behaviors, habits, or acts that the individual may feel compelled to perform in response to an obsession or rules to achieve a sense of completion.

Types of OCD behavior 

Many people with OCD recognize that their obsessions and compulsions may not be rational. However, they still feel a strong desire to carry out these behaviors and tasks as temporary relief. 

Some people feel shame over their need to carry out these behaviors, further worsening their existing OCD symptoms. Here are some examples of OCD behaviors¹¹: 

  • Cleanliness—obsessing over germs and dirt and feeling the need to clean yourself repetitively (washing/showering/cleaning)

  • Order—obsessing over certain processes/ways to carry out tasks and feeling an overwhelming need to proceed with tasks in a certain manner

  • Checking—obsessive thoughts about harm occurring to themselves or those around them, which leads to constant checking of things that may bring about danger

OCD is thought to develop from a combination of biological and environmental factors¹². However, the National Institute for Mental Health has indicated that these causes are not definite. 

Regardless of the cause, OCD can affect your personal, professional, and social life if left untreated, making ordinary tasks extremely difficult. 

Symptoms of OCD vary depending on the person but often center around the fear of particular stimuli and intrusive thoughts. 

6. Post-traumatic stress disorder

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that can develop after experiencing or witnessing a stressful event (e.g., physical or emotional assault, an accident, natural disasters, war). It affects approximately 7.7 million people in the US¹³ and can arise from single or multiple events. 

With PTSD, you may feel intense fear and helplessness, similar to what was experienced during the traumatic event. The effects of PTSD are long-lasting and can become worse if left untreated, and it could increase the risk of depression¹⁴, substance abuse¹⁵, and other anxiety disorders.

Symptoms of PTSD vary but may include some of the following characteristics:

  • Re-experiencing trauma through recollections of events, flashbacks, and nightmares

  • Significant changes in emotion

  • Feeling emotionally numb

  • Avoidance of reminders of the trauma

  • Difficulty sleeping/concentrating

  • Feeling on edge/irritable

Treatments for anxiety disorders

Although anxiety disorders can be daunting, they are treatable, and you can alleviate the symptoms. A range of psychological and medical treatment options help with anxiety. 

Medications

Your doctor may prescribe antidepressant or anti-anxiety medication to help relieve symptoms of anxiety disorders. Some common choices include those listed below: 

  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)—These short- and long-term treatments for anxiety work by inhibiting serotonin reuptake in the brain.

  • Serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs)—This is a class of antidepressant medication also used to treat anxiety by inhibiting the reuptake of serotonin and norepinephrine in the brain.

  • Benzodiazepines—This is a common form of antidepressant and anti-anxiety medication that works by impacting chemical messengers in the brain to induce relaxation.

Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy is a common treatment for mental health disorders using verbal and psychological methods. With the help of a trained mental health professional, psychotherapy can be an effective treatment to help you control your symptoms. 

When they are used as a combined treatment for anxiety disorders, psychotherapy and medications are especially effective.

Therapy can be done individually, in groups, or with families, and may use the following modalities: 

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)—This is a popular therapeutic approach for all anxiety disorders, which involves identifying negative thoughts and behaviors and developing practical, skills-based strategies to change these patterns

  • Psychodynamic therapy—This is a form of talk therapy that focuses on the past to understand present behaviors to treat self-defeating patterns

  • Exposure-based therapy

  • Mindfulness-based therapy

Lifestyle changes

Depending on the type of anxiety and its severity, changes to diet, exercise, and sleep may be sufficient as a treatment or a complementary approach for managing anxiety symptoms. 

These can include the following:

  • Increased physical exercise

  • Breathing activities

  • Mindfulness or meditation

  • Good sleep routine

  • Minimized caffeine, alcohol, or stimulants

When to see a doctor for your anxiety

Anxiety in the short term is not always bad, but anxiety disorders go beyond temporary fear and worry. If you feel that you may be worrying excessively about everyday events to the point that it becomes uncontrollable, it may be time to see a doctor. 

Your doctor will assess you for any physical or psychological symptoms, the length of time you’ve had them and may refer you to a mental health professional (e.g., a psychologist or psychiatrist) if necessary.

The lowdown

There is no cure for a natural emotion such as anxiety. However, receiving the right treatment and support can greatly help the management of an anxiety disorder and reduce the impact the symptoms may have on your daily functioning.

With the right resources and support, treatment can help you manage your symptoms and give you back your quality of life.

Have you considered clinical trials for Anxiety?

We make it easy for you to participate in a clinical trial for Anxiety, and get access to the latest treatments not yet widely available - and be a part of finding a cure.

Joining community groups and exercise programs for my condition made me feel empowered – but I want to be part of finding a cure.
Peter, 64


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