Anxiety is a normal response to stressful situations and everyday challenges. However, some people experience abnormal levels of anxiety to the extent that it interferes with one or more aspects of life. Around 18% of Americans have an anxiety disorder, making this the most common mental illness experienced today.

What Is an Anxiety Disorder?

Everyone feels anxious from time to time. Anxiety is a natural response to issues at work, a disagreement with a loved one or making an important decision. We feel anxiety when problems arise, but the fear dies down once the problem is solved. For some people, however, anxiety is more than a temporary problem.

Chronic anxiety symptoms are part of an overall reaction called the fight-or-flight response. This response helps to protect us from danger. The fight-or-flight response triggers in someone that has an anxiety disorder without a clear sign of danger.

Signs and Symptoms of Anxiety

Anxiety disorders can cause a wide range of physical and mental responses. For people with General Anxiety Disorder (GAD), for example, these symptoms appear more randomly and often become part of a chronic pattern.

Physical symptoms of anxiety can include:

  • Sweating
  • Blushing
  • Shaking hands
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dry mouth
  • Feeling a lump in the throat
  • Nausea
  • Upset stomach
  • Gastrointestinal problems, including diarrhea or constipation
  • Muscle tension
  • Back, shoulder, face or neck pain
  • Tension headache
  • Fatigue
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • Chest pain or tightness
  • Non-specific aches and pains

There are psychological and emotional symptoms of anxiety disorder too:

  • Insomnia or other kinds of sleep disturbances
  • Difficulty concentrating on tasks
  • Feelings of discomfort and/or irritability
  • Feeling out of control and unable to manage anxiety or panic
  • Brain freeze, meaning a feeling of being unable to think or speak
  • A desperate urge to flee the situation or place
  • Feelings of guilt or shame
  • Some people with anxiety disorders also become depressed

Types of Anxiety Disorder

People experience anxiety in different ways. This manifests as different types of anxiety disorders, each with its own unique set of symptoms.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

People with GAD live in constant fear of specific situations. For instance, they may have anxiety related to work, relationships, their health or social interactions. In some cases, there may be a specific issue at the root of the fear, but the anxiety response is disproportionate to the reality of the situation.

People with GAD typically experience physical symptoms of chronic anxiety such as muscle pain, tension headaches and fatigue. They often feel tense or restless and find it hard to relax. Insomnia or other sleep disturbances may also occur. This level of anxiety often has a significant effect on their quality of life.

Panic Disorder

People with panic disorder experience panic attacks and general anxiety symptoms. In a panic attack, the person feels severe emotional and physical distress. Panic attacks typically develop rapidly and last around five to ten minutes. They do sometimes have external triggers but are just as likely to occur at random and without warning.

Panic disorder may lead to the fear of having panic attacks in public. One may try to prevent future panic attacks by avoiding people, things or places that trigger the attack. Some people even develop agoraphobia in response to ongoing symptoms.

Symptoms of a panic attack include:

  • Sweating
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Rapid and/or pounding heart rate
  • Heart palpitations
  • Shortness of breath
  • Feeling choked or smothered
  • Feelings of being out of control
  • Feelings of impending doom


A phobia is an irrational fear of a specific situation or thing. The fear is out of proportion to the actual danger the situation or thing causes.

Phobias can have a major effect on a person’s life if the phobia relates to a common experience. For instance, people with agoraphobia have an intense fear of being in open spaces or in crowds. In severe cases, someone with agoraphobia may become housebound.

Some phobias have less of an impact. For instance, a fear of heights or flying may cause someone to avoid certain places or experiences, but the phobia does not necessarily affect their everyday life.

People with phobias experience either intense anxiety, panic attacks or both when confronted with the cause of their fear. For some people, even thinking or talking about the object of their phobia can cause distress.

Social Anxiety Disorder

People with social anxiety disorder have an intense and chronic fear of being watched, judged and rejected. They spend a lot of time worrying about social situations and events and try to avoid them as much as possible. The phobia typically has a major impact on their social and personal life and often affects their performance or attendance at work or school.

Social anxiety symptoms include:

  • Blushing, sweating and trembling
  • Nausea and/or upset stomach
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Feeling unable to speak or think
  • Finding it difficult to talk to others, especially people they don’t know
  • Feeling self-conscious in front of others
  • Feeling awkward and embarrassed when with other people
  • Intensely afraid of being judged

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

OCD causes reoccurring, unwanted thoughts or repetitive behaviors. It may involve both. People with OCD may act on compulsive behaviors such as counting, checking, cleaning or organizing. There are around 2.2 million Americans with OCD.

OCD symptoms may include:

  • Fear of contamination or dirt
  • Need for things to be in order or symmetrical
  • Thoughts about harming yourself or others
  • Unwanted thoughts, including aggression, or on sexual or religious subjects
  • Compulsive washing and cleaning
  • Checking
  • Counting
  • Orderliness
  • Following a strict routine
  • Demanding reassurances

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

People with PTSD usually experience anxiety after exposure to a traumatic event that harmed or threatened their life. Violent events that may trigger PTSD may include military combat, sexual assault, natural disaster, terroristic attack or accident. Around 7.7 million Americans have PTSD.

PTSD symptoms may include:

  • Reoccurring, unwanted memories of the traumatic event
  • Reliving the traumatic event (flashbacks)
  • Upsetting nightmares about the traumatic event
  • Memory problems related to things happening around the traumatic event
  • Difficulty maintaining close relationships
  • Feeling detached from family and friends
  • Lack of interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Difficulty experiencing positive emotions
  • Feeling emotionally numb

Anxiety Disorder Diagnosis

Anxiety disorder diagnosis has several criteria. Contributing factors relate to the type of symptom, how long the symptoms have been present and the effect the symptoms have on the person’s life. For instance, to be diagnosed with GAD, symptoms must have a significant effect and have been present at least six months.

People with physical anxiety symptoms may visit doctor after doctor looking for answers. Since anxiety is the root cause of the symptoms, they persist until the person is treated for anxiety.

Diagnosis and Treatment Provides a Way to Manage Anxiety

Anxiety disorders can be debilitating. They may prevent you from doing things you once enjoyed or prevent you from enjoying new relationships or experiences.

Comprehensive anxiety treatment is available at Lucida Treatment Center. With treatment, people with anxiety disorders can learn to manage their symptoms and start to enjoy life to the fullest.

This entry was posted on May 2, 2019 and modified on May 6, 2019
Krisi Herron

Medically Reviewed by

Krisi Herron, LCDC