Anxiety disorders are shockingly common in the United States, in fact the most common mental illness. Affecting 40 million adults, aged 18 and older, anxiety disorders are highly treatable. However, people with anxiety are three to five times more likely to go to the doctor and more likely to be hospitalized for psychiatric disorders.
The hallmark characteristics of an anxiety disorder are levels of dread and worry that are intense, disruptive to daily life, and out of proportion to the potential threat. Of course, everyone feels anxious from time to time. Worry and dread are completely normal when an important life event is coming up, there’s trouble at home or work, or the stakes are raised in one situation or another.
For a person to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, their worries and nervousness must be excessive, get in the way of daily life and be largely out of their control. With anxiety disorders, a person’s awareness and understanding that they are not under any kind of threat or danger doesn’t relieve their worry, fear or dread.
Anxiety affects a person’s physical and mental state by turning on the body’s “fear, flight or fight” mechanism and leaving it on at a level that’s just beneath the threshold of awareness. This system keeps us safe by boosting our awareness of our surroundings, sharpens our alertness and prepares us to run—or fight—for our very lives. Unfortunately, in chronic anxiety, our alertness doesn’t go all the way off. We stay on alert all the time, which wears down the body and mind.
Excessive worrying that is greatly out of proportion to the situation is an exhausting part of most anxiety disorders, but in one type of anxiety disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, the individual feels constant fear and dread for no identifiable reason at all.
People with anxiety tend to be easily frustrated and irritable. Some people experience a tendency to anger easily when they’re struggling with an anxiety disorder. Note that people with anxiety-induced agitation and irritability feel under stress all the time, which keeps their levels of agitation elevated.
Anxiety causes constant worrying, which consumes mental energy. Racing thoughts are also common in anxiety disorders, which makes focusing on a single task much harder.
Panic attacks are out-of-the-blue episodes of profoundly elevated fear, in which a person feels certain they are on the brink of death. A full-blown panic attack is completely incapacitating. Usually a person’s pulse skyrockets, their chest hurts, and they may have trouble breathing. Trembling, dizziness and nausea are also typical.
Social anxiety, a common kind of chronic anxiety disorder, causes either avoidance of all social interactions or specific kinds of social interactions, like public speaking. People with anxiety don’t enjoy being alone all the time, but the fear of social interactions is greater than loneliness, leaving people in a harmful cycle of avoidance.
Chronic anxiety is all about fear and worry. For example, a person may lose sleep worrying that their home might burn down, or a loved one might die in an accident. These are real events that do happen, losing sleep worrying about something that might happen—but probably won’t—is a common feature of chronic anxiety.
GAD causes a constant state of stressed-out worry that is literally about nothing. A person with GAD stays on high alert although there’s nothing visibly threatening or dangerous going on
Devastating and terrifying panic attacks are the hallmark of panic disorder. Although a person with Panic Disorder doesn’t feel worried all the time, the unpredictable and incapacitating nature of recurrent attacks severely disrupts life.
People with Social Anxiety Disorder suffer an incapacitating fear of being humiliated or embarrassed in public. Social Anxiety Disorder can be rather specific, such as a fear of public speaking, or a fear of being observed.
A phobia is an irrationally powerful fear of something that poses no immediate threat. Examples include arachnophobia (fear of spiders), acrophobia (fear of heights) and claustrophobia (fear of crowded or enclosed spaces).
OCD is a common kind of anxiety disorder in which a person has unpleasant, intrusive, recurring and uncontrollable thoughts (obsessions) and/or irresistible, repetitive and ritualistic behaviors (compulsions) that he or she the urge to perform over and over. About one in forty Americans have OCD.
PTSD develops in some but not all people who survive a terrifying event in which they fear for their lives. PTSD can also occur in those who witness such an event. Examples involve combat, violent assault, or rape. The lifetime prevalence of PTSD is about 6.8 percent in the USA.