The signs, symptoms, and effects of anxiety can be different for every person impacted. Learning about anxiety is one of the first steps towards getting better.
Learn about anxiety
Anxiety disorders refer to a group of mental health disorders that are characterized by feelings of excessive fear, anxiety, worry, and/or apprehension that result in changes in behavior or an inability to function appropriately on a daily basis. When individuals are suffering from anxiety disorders, they tend to avoid specific situations that invoke those distressing emotions, which can, in turn, further exacerbate their symptoms.
There are a number of different types of anxiety disorders, which are discussed in the following:
Generalized anxiety disorder exists when individuals experience excessive levels of worry and apprehension regarding various events or activities. Cornerstone to this type of anxiety disorder is the expectation that something negative is going to occur, yet that worry is out of proportion to the actual likelihood that what is feared will actually happen. Individuals with generalized anxiety disorder find that the overwhelming worry and apprehension that they experience interferes with their abilities to adhere to daily responsibilities as they are unable to control the distressing emotions they experience.
Separation anxiety disorder exists when individuals suffer from excessive feelings of anxiety or fear specifically regarding being separated from their homes or from important attachment figures. These individuals may worry about the safety and wellbeing of loved ones and, as a result, go to extreme measures to remain in contact with them. When separation does occur, or when separation is anticipated, individuals with this type of anxiety disorder may experience distressing symptoms that can hinder their ability to function appropriately.
Social anxiety disorder, also known as social phobia, exists when individuals experience intense, marked fear or anxiety regarding social situations. These individuals typically fear that they will be scrutinized in such settings and suffer from distressing emotions and avoidance behaviors as a result of that fear. These individuals overestimate the negative consequences of being in social situations and fear the judgment that they believe is being placed on them during those times. The particular levels of distress that these individuals fear and the symptoms that they experience will vary from person to person.
Panic disorder exists when individuals suffer from recurrent panic attacks. Panic attacks involve a sudden and intense surge of fear that involves the onset of a number of uncomfortable physical and cognitive symptoms. Examples of such symptoms can include sweating, a pounding heart, chest pain, feelings of choking, feeling light-headed or unsteady, experiencing a shortness of breath, nausea, trembling, and shaking. Additionally, panic attacks can lead to episodes of derealization, where one feels as though he or she is in a state of false reality, and/or depersonalization, where one feels as though he or she is detached from his or her surroundings. Furthermore, experiencing a panic attack can also make some individuals fear that they are losing control or even as though they are dying. The symptoms and frequencies of panic attacks will vary amongst individuals who suffer from panic disorder, but all will experience an ongoing fear that a panic attack will occur, which can prevent them from functioning appropriately in various settings.
Specific phobia refers to a type of anxiety disorder where individuals experience intense feelings of fear or anxiety regarding specific objects or situations. These fearful and anxious feelings can inhibit individuals with specific phobias from engaging in certain activities in order to avoid coming in contact with the things that they fear. While many people fear many different things, individuals suffering from specific phobias experience distressing feelings regarding the things that they fear to a degree that is out of proportion to the actual risk that is involved. Furthermore, the presence of such fears causes individuals with specific phobias to experience impairment or distress in some level of functioning.
Agoraphobia exists when individuals experience intense fear or anxiety that is triggered by exposure to certain situations. Individuals with agoraphobia fear things such as being in open spaces, being in enclosed places, using public transportation, being in a crowd, standing in line, or being outside of the home. These individuals typically fear that being placed in such situations will prevent them from being able to escape and develop panic-like symptoms as a result. The presence of agoraphobia can significantly impair a person’s ability to function and adhere to daily responsibilities.
Suffering from any type of anxiety disorder can result in significant distress for individuals. Unfortunately, there are some people who, as a result of such distress, find themselves turning to drugs and/or alcohol as a means of self-medicating. When this is the case, comprehensive treatment that addresses both the anxiety disorder and the co-occurring substance abuse problem is necessary for individuals to achieve full recovery.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), approximately 40 million adults over the age of 18 suffer from some type of anxiety disorder. This equates to an estimated 18% of the adult population in the United States.
Causes and risk factors for anxiety
The causes and risk factors that can impact an individual’s susceptibility to developing an anxiety disorder are discussed briefly in the following:
Genetic: Individuals who have a family history of anxiety disorders are at an increased risk for suffering from similar concerns themselves. The specific levels of heritability, however, vary among the different types of anxiety disorders.
Environmental: For some types of anxiety disorders, certain environmental factors can play a role in the onset of symptoms. Experiencing significant life stress, especially the loss of a loved one, can impact the onset of separation anxiety disorder. Having a negative or traumatic encounter with a feared object or situation can elicit the development of symptoms of specific phobia. Childhood maltreatment and adversity are noted as being environmental risk factors for social anxiety disorder. Interpersonal stressors, stressors related to one’s health and wellbeing, and suffering from various types of abuse can lead to an increased vulnerability to suffering from panic disorder. Experiencing negative events in childhood can impact the onset of agoraphobia. In regards to generalized anxiety disorder, however, there have not been any environmental factors linked to the development of symptoms.
- Being female
- Family history of anxiety disorders
- Suffering from maltreatment or adversity during childhood
- Being the victim of physical or sexual abuse
- Experiencing a traumatic event
- Parental overprotection during childhood
- Smoking (noted as being a risk factor particularly for panic attacks)
- Anxiety sensitivity (believing that symptoms of anxiety are harmful)
- Behavioral inhibition
- Negative affectivity (neuroticism)
Signs and symptoms of anxiety
The signs and symptoms that are displayed by individuals who are suffering from an anxiety disorder will vary depending upon the specific type of anxiety disorder, as well as whether or not they are suffering from any co-occurring conditions. Some examples of signs and symptoms that could indicate the presence of one or more anxiety disorders include:
- Avoiding certain people, places, events, situations, and/or objects
- Refusing to leave one’s home
- Refusing to be separated from major attachment figures
- Isolating oneself from others
- Being unable to adhere to daily responsibilities
- Frequent absences from work or other obligations
- Muscle tension
- Sleep disturbances
- Pounding heart
- Concentration difficulties
- Having the sensation of one’s mind going blank
- Experiencing an inability to control one’s worry and apprehension
- Suicidal ideation
- Racing thoughts
- Mood swings
- Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness
- Low self-esteem
Effects of anxiety
When individuals do not receive treatment for anxiety disorder symptoms, they are susceptible to experiencing a number of adverse effects. Examples of such effects can include, but are limited to, the following:
- Deteriorated relationships
- Engaging in self-harming behaviors
- Beginning to use and abuse drugs and/or alcohol
- Decline in occupational performance
- Social withdrawal
- Familial strife
- Onset of new, or worsening of current, mental health symptoms
- Decline in overall physical wellbeing
- Decreased quality of life
Anxiety and co-occurring disorders
As was previously mentioned, individuals who suffer from anxiety disorders may begin to abuse substances in an attempt to alleviate the distress they experience. Additionally, individuals with anxiety disorders may also experience symptoms of other types of mental health conditions as well. Examples of disorders that are known to co-occur alongside anxiety disorders may include:
- Multiple anxiety disorders
- Substance use disorders
- Bipolar disorders
- Depressive disorders
- Eating disorders
- Impulse-control disorders
- Personality disorders
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)