What is Anxiety? Types, Symptoms, Causes & Treatments

Anxiety is a feeling of worry, uneasiness or fear that can cause physical symptoms such as a rapid heartbeat and sweating. It’s a common emotion that everyone faces. 

It’s normal to experience anxiety in certain situations, such as before taking an exam, meeting someone new or giving a public speech or presentation. However, if you often develop persistent, sudden or extreme feelings of anxiety, you may suffer from an anxiety disorder. 

Below, we’ve explained what anxiety is, as well as the types of anxiety disorders that can affect the way you feel and behave. We’ve also listed common causes of and risk factors for anxiety, including everyday issues that may aggravate or worsen your anxiety symptoms.

Finally, we’ve explained how you can treat and manage anxiety with medication, psychotherapy, changes to your lifestyle and other approaches. 

What Is Anxiety?

Anxiety is a general feeling of uneasiness, worry and fear that you may notice developing before or in response to a stressful event.

When you feel anxious, you may notice that your heartbeat increases or that you begin to sweat more than you normally would. You may feel restless, tense or get a boost of energy and focus that helps you to make decisions and take action.

Anxiety is a common, normal feeling for men and women. In many cases, it has positive effects, such as helping us to pay attention to our surroundings and alerting us to danger.

However, for some people, anxiety can be an ongoing or severe issue that causes an excessive level of fear, worry or negative thought patterns. When a form of anxiety lasts for six months or longer and causes feelings of fear or uncertainty on a daily basis, it’s usually referred to as an anxiety disorder.

Anxiety disorders are very common mental health issues. According to the American Psychiatric Association, almost 30 percent of adults will be affected by at least one anxiety disorder at some point in life. In addition to changing the way you think and feel, anxiety disorders can have a negative effect on other aspects of your health. 

For example, some anxiety disorders may increase your risk of issues such as diabetes, heart disease, depression and substance abuse. Although anxiety disorders can be frustrating to deal with, they’re almost always treatable using medication, therapy, lifestyle changes or a combination of approaches. 

Types of Anxiety

There are numerous different anxiety disorders, each of which has its own distinct triggers and anxiety symptoms. 

For example, some people may experience feelings of anxiety before and during social events, while others may have a more generalized form of anxiety that causes them to worry about the issues they encounter every day. 

We’ve listed the most common types of anxiety below, along with further information about how each anxiety disorder may affect your feelings and behavior. 

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

Generalized anxiety disorder is a common anxiety disorder that involves excessive feelings of anxiety or worry about routine life circumstances, socializing, work, health and other everyday behaviors and activities. 

People with generalized anxiety disorder may constantly feel concerned about their work, family, friends, relationships, finances or other issues. They may instinctively anticipate a bad outcome, even when there’s no logical reason for them to feel this way.

Researchers aren’t aware of exactly what causes GAD. However, research suggests that a mix of biological factors and life experiences may contribute to this form of anxiety.

According to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America, around 6.8 million adults, or 3.1 percent of the US population, are affected by GAD in any given year.

Panic Disorder

Panic disorder is an anxiety disorder that’s characterized by panic attacks — sudden periods of fear or discomfort that can happen without warning or after exposure to a certain type of trigger, such as a specific situation or object.

People with panic disorder often experience physical symptoms during a panic attack, such as trembling, shaking, sweating, heart palpitations and shortness of breath.

During a panic attack, people can also experience feelings of impending doom and as if they’re unable to stay in control of their thoughts and behavior.

Like generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder is relatively common. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 2.7 percent of American adults had panic disorder in the past year, with panic disorder more prevalent in women than men (3.8 vs. 1.6 percent).

Phobias

Phobias are common anxiety disorders that involve a powerful fear of and/or aversion to certain situations or objects. Common phobias include a fear of heights, flying, receiving injections or being in close proximity to certain types of animals.

People with phobias may go out of their way to avoid these situations or objects, or experience an overwhelming, intense feeling of anxiety when exposed to them.

While some of these fears are legitimate and realistic (for example, it’s common to experience a fear of heights), people with specific phobias often develop feelings of fear and/or aversion that are disproportionate to the level of danger that’s present.

Most phobias develop in childhood. However, some people may develop certain phobias later in their lives. 

Social Anxiety Disorder (Social Phobia)

Social anxiety disorder, or social phobia, is a common type of anxiety disorder that involves an intense feeling of anxiety during social situations.

People with social anxiety disorder may feel that they’re being watched or judged by others in social environments, such as when meeting a new person, going on a date, interviewing for a job or even just interacting with an employee in a business. 

Sometimes, the feelings caused by social anxiety disorder may interfere with going to school, working or maintaining relationships. 

Like other types of anxiety, social anxiety disorder is fairly common. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, research suggests that approximately seven percent of adults in the United States are affected by this type of anxiety disorder.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD, is an anxiety disorder that involves recurring thoughts (referred to as obsessions) that can cause repetitive behaviors (compulsions).

People with OCD may carry out certain routines for longer than normal or to an extreme extent in order to provide relief from anxiety. 

OCD is made up of obsessions, compulsions or both of these things. Obsessions could include a fear of losing things or coming into contact with germs, or an obsessive desire for things to be perfectly organized or symmetrical.

Obsessions can cause compulsive behavior. Common compulsions in people with OCD include excessively ordering or arranging things to look precise or perfect, excessive cleaning or simply checking certain things, such as a locked door, again and again.

Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety is a type of anxiety that can occur when a child is separated from a parent or caregiver. It’s common in children between eight months and one year old, although it can occur in children between 18 months and two and half years of age.

In some cases, children may experience separation anxiety that continues into their elementary school years.

Separation anxiety is usually temporary, with children gradually becoming more comfortable in the presence of other people over time. 

When it persists for an unusually long period of time, it can often be a signal of an underlying anxiety disorder.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a disorder that can develop after a traumatic, scary or dangerous event. 

Although PTSD is often associated with war veterans, it can affect anyone. On average, women are twice as likely to develop this disorder than men.

Like other anxiety disorders, PTSD is relatively common. According to the American Psychiatric Association, approximately 3.5 percent of American adults are affected by PTSD every year.

A range of events can cause or contribute to PTSD, including harmful accidents, violent attacks, sexual assault, threats or life events such as the unexpected death of a partner, family member, close friend or other loved one.

In order to be diagnosed with PTSD, a person generally needs to have a mix of re-experiencing symptoms, avoidance symptoms, arousal or reactivity symptoms and symptoms that affect their mood and/or cognition.

Illness Anxiety Disorder (Hypochondriasis)

Illness anxiety disorder, which is also referred to as health anxiety or hypochondria, is a fear of suffering from a medical illness, usually a severe one.

People with illness anxiety disorder may worry excessively about their health and view normal bodily functions or mild symptoms as evidence of a severe, potentially terminal illness. 

Some people with this type of anxiety disorder are excessively worried about a specific part of their body, such as their heart or lungs. This anxiety might persist even after talking to a healthcare professional and being reassured that nothing is wrong.

Performance Anxiety

Performance anxiety, or stage fright, is a type of fear and apprehension about not being able to perform a certain task.

This type of anxiety can take many forms. Some people experience performance anxiety before and during public performances, such as singing, playing a music instrument or giving a speech in front of others. Others may experience performance anxiety before taking a test.

We offer propranolol, a medication that treats the physical symptoms of anxiety, to help with this type of anxiety. 

A common form of performance anxiety is sexual performance anxiety — feelings of anxiety and self-consciousness that occur before and during sex.

Sexual performance anxiety may contribute to other sexual issues. In fact, one study published in the journal Sexual Medicine Reviews found that performance anxiety affects up to 25 percent of men and may contribute to erectile dysfunction (ED) and premature ejaculation (PE).

You can learn more about sexual performance anxiety and ED, as well as science-based treatments for this form of anxiety, in our detailed guide. 

Other Anxiety Disorders

Other anxiety disorders include agoraphobia (a fear of environments perceived as unsafe with no easy way to escape) and substance or medication-induced anxiety disorder. 

These are less common than other anxiety disorders. For example, an estimated 0.9 percent of US adults are affected by agoraphobia per year.

Experts aren’t yet aware of what causes agoraphobia. However, it’s common in people affected by panic disorder. People with this form of anxiety may experience fear in enclosed areas like theaters, as well as more open areas such shopping malls and parking lots.

Substance or medication-induced anxiety disorder can develop in people who use certain drugs, or in those who abruptly stop taking certain drugs.

Drugs and medications that may cause this form of anxiety include caffeine, stimulants, asthma medications and illicit drugs such as cocaine and LSD. 

It’s often treated by making changes to the way you use your medication, or through methods such as therapy.

Symptoms of Anxiety

Anxiety disorders can cause a diverse range of symptoms. Many of the symptoms of anxiety are physical, such as a fast heart rate or rapid, shallow breathing. 

Others are psychological, such as feelings of worry, fear or compulsive thought patterns and behavior.

We’ve listed the most common anxiety symptoms below, along with detailed information on how each symptom may affect you if you suffer from an anxiety disorder.

Physical Symptoms of Anxiety

Many of the most common symptoms of anxiety are physical. Some of these symptoms may be apparent immediately when you feel anxious, while others may develop gradually in response to situations that cause you to experience anxiety.

Common physical symptoms of anxiety include:

  • Heart palpitations and an increased heart rate
  • Fast, shallow breathing and a feeling of shortness of breath
  • Muscle tension
  • Sweating
  • Shaking and/or trembling
  • Weakness
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Nausea

If you have a panic disorder, you may experience severe symptoms that develop suddenly and rapidly build in intensity at certain moments. We’ve provided more information about the major symptoms of panic attacks below. 

Psychological Symptoms of Anxiety

Anxiety can affect the way you think and cause a range of psychological symptoms. If you have an anxiety disorder, you may notice that you think or behave differently in certain situations and environments. 

Common psychological symptoms of anxiety include:

  • Excessive worry
  • Irrational fears
  • Overwhelming self-consciousness
  • Insomnia, including difficulty falling asleep and/or staying asleep
  • Vivid dreams or flashbacks to traumatic experiences
  • Feelings of restlessness or being on-edge
  • Compulsive thoughts and/or behavior
  • Difficulty concentrating on certain tasks
  • Emotional withdrawal
  • Irritability
  • Feelings of terror

Anxiety vs. Panic Attack

Panic attacks are sudden episodes of intense fear or discomfort that involve severe physical symptoms of anxiety. 

Most panic attacks are short, reaching their peak level of intensity in 10 minutes or less, after which the symptoms gradually subside. 

Because panic attacks can be severe, they’re often mistaken for heart attacks, breathing issues and other serious medical episodes.

Although some anxiety disorders involve panic attacks, not all people with anxiety experience these symptoms. You can learn more in our guide to Panic Attack vs Anxiety Attack.

Causes and Risk Factors for Anxiety

Researchers currently aren’t aware of exactly what causes anxiety. However, the most recent research suggests that a combination of genetic and environmental factors may contribute to your risk of developing an anxiety disorder at some point in life. 

Common risk factors for anxiety disorders include:

  • Early loss of a parent
  • A stressful, negative or disturbed childhood environment
  • A family history of anxiety or other mental illnesses, such as depression
  • Exposure to traumatizing events, particularly before the age of 21
  • Excessive use of caffeine and/or other substances and medications
  • Certain physical health conditions, such as heart arrhythmias or thyroid issues
  • Certain temperamental traits, such as shyness or behavioral inhibition, that may first appear during childhood

If you have an anxiety disorder, you may find that your anxiety develops or worsens when you’re exposed to certain objects, people or situations.

These things are referred to as anxiety triggers. They’re common issues for people with specific phobias. Common triggers for anxiety include:

  • Lack of sleep
  • Caffeine consumption
  • Alcohol consumption
  • Stress caused by relationships
  • Stress-related to your financial situation
  • Social media use or screen time
  • Loneliness or social isolation
  • Thinking about past traumas or confrontations
  • Uncertainty about the future
  • Fear of upcoming events, such as social interactions, tests or performances

Over time, you may notice a pattern to your anxiety flare-ups, such as a specific object, setting or type of situation. 

Keeping track of your anxiety, such as by making a note each time you feel an anxiety flare-up, may help you to identify your triggers. 

Anxiety Treatments and Prevention

Anxiety is treatable. From generalized anxiety disorder to specific phobias, almost all cases of anxiety can be treated using medication, therapy, changes to your lifestyle or a combination of different approaches. 

Anxiety comes in many forms, meaning what helps with anxiety for one person may not always be the most effective treatment for someone else. 

Below, we’ve listed the treatment options for anxiety, along with information explaining how each treatment works, specific treatment approaches and more. 

Psychiatry & Anxiety Medications

For most people, the most effective way to gain control over your symptoms and treat anxiety is by working with a psychiatrist. 

A qualified, licensed psychiatrist can work with you to identify the factors that are contributing to your anxiety and put together a treatment plan using science-based medication.

We offer an online psychiatry service that allows you to talk to a licensed psychiatry provider via video call online. 

Together, you’ll create a personalized treatment plan and, if appropriate, you’ll receive medication to help you treat your anxiety. 

The whole process takes place online, allowing you to receive the help you need without having to leave your home. Learn more about online psychiatry with hims.

Several science-based, proven medications are used to treat anxiety. Based on your symptoms and other factors, your healthcare provider may prescribe one of the following medications:

  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). SSRIs are antidepressants that work by increasing the amount of serotonin in your brain. Although they’re mostly used to treat depression, some SSRIs are also prescribed as treatments for anxiety.

    SSRIs used to treat anxiety disorders include fluvoxamine (Luvox®), sertraline (Zoloft®), citalopram (Celexa®), fluoxetine (Prozac®) and others.

    It may take several weeks to experience an improvement in your symptoms after starting treatment with an SSRI. Our guide to antidepressants for anxiety goes into greater detail about how these medications work, their side effects, benefits and more.

  • Serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs). SNRIs work very similarly to SSRIs, but also increase your body’s production of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine, or noradrenaline.

    SNRIs used to treat anxiety disorders include duloxetine (Cymbalta®) and venlafaxine (Effexor®).

  • Tricyclic antidepressants. These are older medications used to treat depression and anxiety. Compared to newer antidepressants, they may be more likely to cause certain side effects and interactions.

    Some tricyclic antidepressants, such as doxepin (Sinequan®), are used to treat certain anxiety disorders.

  • Benzodiazepines. These medications are sedatives that work by increasing the effects of GABA, an inhibitory neurotransmitter that reduces anxiety and promotes calmness, in your brain.

    Commonly used benzodiazepines include alprazolam (Xanax®), diazepam (Valium®), clonazepam (Klonopin®) and others.

    Benzodiazepines are effective at treating anxiety, but can cause dependence, addiction and, if stopped suddenly, withdrawal symptoms. Because of this, they’re typically only prescribed as a short-term treatment for anxiety.

Our guide to anxiety medications provides more information about how these medications work, their effects, side effects and more. 

Therapy

In addition to medication, psychotherapy is one of the most effective ways to gain control over feelings of anxiety.

Several different types of psychotherapy are used to treat anxiety disorders, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and exposure therapy.

Cognitive behavioral therapy involves identifying harmful thoughts or behavioral habits that can cause or worsen your anxiety, then implementing problem-solving strategies to change the way you think and behave.

This type of therapy is also used to treat other mental health disorders, such as depression and certain forms of addiction.

Exposure therapy involves directly confronting the objects, activities or situations that cause you to experience anxiety in a controlled, safe environment.

You may benefit from this type of therapy if you have a phobia, post-traumatic stress disorder, a panic disorder or form of anxiety that’s situational, such as social anxiety disorder.

If you have an anxiety disorder, you can talk to a licensed mental health professional online for personalized help and assistance. Check out hims’ online counseling for more information. 

Online Support Groups

Although many people with anxiety benefit from individual therapy, others prefer the supportive atmosphere of a group.

Taking part in an online support group allows you to discuss your symptoms and anxiety-related challenges with other people, all with the ability to stay anonymous as you discuss strategies for dealing with your symptoms and gaining control over how you think. 

Instead of working individually with a therapist to conquer your anxiety, you’ll be able to connect with other people and make progress together. 

Learn more about anonymous online support groups with hims.

Natural Remedies For Anxiety

Certain supplements, lifestyle changes and natural remedies for anxiety can help you to stay in control of your mood and reduce the severity of your anxiety symptoms. 

Common natural remedies for anxiety include:

  • Exercise. Regular exercise improves both your physical and mental health. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, working out on a regular basis helps to improve mood and reduce the severity of anxiety and depression.

    If you have an anxiety disorder, try to exercise regularly, even if it’s just a quick walk in a park or a short workout in the gym.

    • Healthy eating. Research shows that your diet may affect your level of anxiety. A study of adults aged 50 and up, for example, found that diets high in saturated fats and sugars were associated with higher anxiety levels.

      Try to eat a balanced diet that’s rich in vitamins, minerals and nutrients. Research shows that a diet rich in vegetables, fruit, whole grains and lean sources of protein may result in a lower risk of developing anxiety.

  • Limiting your alcohol intake. Anxiety often co-occurs with alcohol use disorders. Try to limit your alcohol intake. It’s best to follow the CDC’s recommendation of a maximum of two alcoholic drinks per day for men, or one alcoholic drink per day for women.

  • Drinking caffeine in moderation. While caffeine may make you more alert and focused on your work or studies, it can worsen anxiety. In fact, there’s even a subclass of anxiety that’s referred to as caffeine-induced anxiety disorder.

    If you notice yourself feeling more anxious after drinking one too many cups of coffee, try to scale back your caffeine intake to a more moderate amount.

  • Getting a good night’s sleep. Anxiety and sleep problems go hand in hand. According to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America, people with chronic sleep problems have an elevated risk of developing an anxiety disorder.

    For optimal health, try to get at least seven hours of quality sleep per night. If you find it difficult to fall asleep, it’s important to talk to your healthcare provider about changes that you can make to your habits and routine for better quality sleep. 

Our how to overcome anxiety guide discusses other techniques and remedies that you can use to control your anxiety symptoms. 

How to Stop an Anxiety Attack

Anxiety can come and go. In some situations, you may experience severe symptoms of anxiety that don’t seem to get better on their own. 

To deal with an anxiety attack, try to:

  • Prevent it before it starts. If you feel the symptoms of anxiety coming on, try to prevent them from worsening. This could mean taking a moment to breathe or excusing yourself from a conversation to spend some time on your own, away from other people.

    By identifying your anxiety triggers, you may find it easier to avoid objects and situations that trigger your anxiety symptoms.

  • Use relaxation techniques. Techniques such as deep breathing can help to reduce the “fight or flight” response that causes you to feel stress and anxiety.

    To practice deep breathing, try taking slower, longer breaths from your stomach instead of your chest. Count to at least three as you inhale and exhale. As you slow down your breathing, you should notice your body feeling more relaxed.

  • Understand your anxiety symptoms. The more you understand about anxiety attacks and panic, the more capable you’ll be of identifying the symptoms that may occur when you experience severe anxiety.

    This can help you to stay grounded and focus on slow breathing, relaxation and gaining control over your emotions and behavior.

  • Speak to an expert about treatment. With treatment, anxiety and panic attacks can be prevented. A licensed mental health provider can prescribe you medication or suggest a form of therapy to help you control your anxiety symptoms and avoid anxiety attacks. 

Anxiety Tests

Several tests are used to diagnose anxiety in a clinical setting, including the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory (STAI), Beck Anxiety Inventory (BAI), Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale (HADS) and others.

Your healthcare provider may use one or several of these tests to measure the severity of your anxiety and provide an accurate diagnosis. 

If you search for terms like “anxiety test,” you can find tests online that claim to diagnose many anxiety disorders.

While these tests may help to recognize some symptoms of anxiety, they’re not a replacement for a diagnosis by a licensed healthcare provider.

If you’re concerned that you may be affected by an anxiety disorder, it’s always better to seek a professional diagnosis than to rely on an online test. 

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This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.