What are anxiety disorders?

Dr. Michael J. Mufson, MD
Psychiatrist (Therapist)

Ask a handful of people with an anxiety disorder to describe it and they're likely to paint different pictures. One might dread speaking in public, while another is gripped by intense fear at the mere thought of getting on an airplane. A third might label herself a "chronic worrier" because she regularly frets about all sorts of things. A fourth experiences unpredictable episodes of panic, with shortness of breath, sweating, and chest pains. Many people would undoubtedly mention that they have trouble sleeping.

Why the broad array of symptoms? It's because anxiety disorders aren't actually a single condition, but rather a spectrum of related disorders. However, many different anxiety disorders are believed to have the same biological underpinnings. That helps explain why more than half of all people with one anxiety disorder also have another. While each anxiety disorder has its own set of symptoms, they share some symptoms, too. Additionally, depression and anxiety are closely linked. Often, people with anxiety disorders have symptoms of depression, too, and vice versa.

Anxiety disorder is the serious medical illness that fills people's lives with anxiety and fear. Some anxiety disorders include panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, social phobia (or social anxiety disorder), specific phobias, and generalized anxiety disorder.

This answer is based on source information from the National Women's Health Information Center.

Anxiety disorders is a general term for some of the most common psychiatric illnesses in the United States. While it is normal to feel anxious or nervous, anxiety disorders take these feelings to an unmanageable extreme, causing a persistent, excessive, irrational fear or dread. These feelings last for at least six months, and interfere with your ability to live your life normally on a daily basis. There are several kinds of anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), panic disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), social anxiety disorder, and specific phobias.

What people with these disorders have in common is unwarranted fear or distress that interferes with daily life. The fear may be of something very specific, such as heights or social situations, or it may be general, (called generalized anxiety). Research on the physiology of anxiety-related illness is still young, but there's growing evidence of mutual influence between emotions and physical functioning. Yet anxiety often goes unidentified as a source of other disorders, such as substance abuse or physical addiction that can result from attempts to quell feelings of anxiety.

Anxiety is a normal part of life. But anxiety disorders are different from everyday worries. They're chronic medical disorders that cause severe and irrational worry, tension, fear, or dread. Without treatment, they can grow to overwhelm every aspect of daily life.

Anxiety disorders include these common types:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
  • Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Panic disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Social anxiety disorder (SAD, also called social phobia)

An anxiety disorder is when anxiety becomes so overwhelming that it literally disorders a person's life. Anxiety itself is actually normal. But anxiety disorders make it so people can't function. They can't enjoy friends or family, make it to work. Life becomes unlivable because of anxiety disorders.

People with anxiety disorders are stressed and may:

  • become irritable
  • become restless
  • not sleep well
  • have muscle tension
  • avoid whatever stresses them out (the grocery store, their boss, a co-worker they don't like)

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.