What Are Anxiety Disorders?

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Anxiety disorders are serious mental illnesses that cause significant worry or fear that doesn't go away and may even get worse over time. We all feel anxious at times, but with an anxiety disorder, the anxiety tends to be fairly constant and has a very negative and intrusive impact on a person's quality of life.

Types of Anxiety Disorders

There are several types of anxiety disorders including:

The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) breaks anxiety disorders into three categories:

  • Anxiety Disorders
  • Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders
  • Trauma- and Stressor-Related Disorders

This differentiation shows that while the disorders have a commonality and are related, they are distinctly different as well.

Anxiety Disorder Symptoms

Anxiety disorders come with a whole host of symptoms and no one person has the same experience. Each disorder tends to have different symptoms as well.

The symptoms common to anxiety disorders in general include:

  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Dizziness
  • Dry mouth
  • Feelings of nervousness, panic, fear, and unease
  • Muscle tightness
  • Nausea
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • Sweaty or cold hands and/or feet
  • Tingling or numbness in the hands or feet
  • Unable to be calm or hold still

When you experience the familiar physical and psychological signs of fear and anxiety such as sweating, racing heart, shortness of breath, trembling, worry, or stress, these are cues that something is happening that could be a threat and that you need to deal with it.

This “flight or fight” reaction activates the physical and psychological resources necessary to deal with the potential danger. Although this system works well most of the time, sometimes it can go into overdrive and do more harm than good. When this happens, it might indicate you have an anxiety disorder.

Causes

No one knows exactly what causes anxiety disorders, although there seems to be a variety of factors, including genetics, environment, stress level, brain changes, and trauma. Researchers are discovering more about these links all the time.

Millions of American adults will experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives. Because women are twice as likely as men to experience anxiety disorders, experts recommend that women and girls over the age of 13 should be screened for anxiety during routine health exams.

Diagnosis

There are no lab tests that can be done in order to diagnose an anxiety disorder, though your doctor may perform some tests to rule out physical problems. Your doctor may refer you to a mental health professional, such as a psychiatrist, a psychologist, or a counselor, who will use specific diagnostic tools and questions to help determine what sort of disorder you may have. 

Generalized Anxiety Disorder Discussion Guide

Get our printable guide to help you ask the right questions at your next doctor's appointment.

Mind Doc Guide

Treatments

Anxiety disorders can be treated with a variety of options, including psychotherapy, medications, and coping strategies. One particularly effective form of psychotherapy for anxiety disorder sufferers is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). If you have an anxiety disorder, there are plenty of treatment options available to help you live your life to the fullest.

Remember, treatment can take time before you and your physician discover the best options for you. Be patient and keep communication open with your mental health professional in order to figure out the plan best tailored to your individual needs. 

If you or a loved one are struggling with symptoms of an anxiety disorder, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area. 

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

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  1. Gregory KD, Chelmow D, Nelson HD, et al. Screening for anxiety in adolescent and adult women: A recommendation from the Women's Preventive Services Initiative. Ann Intern Med. 2020. doi:10.7326/M20-0580

  2. Cleveland Clinic. Anxiety disorders: diagnosis and tests. Updated December 15, 2017.