Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 05/14/2021
Unless you handle stress like James Bond, (stalked by assassins? No biggie), chances are you’ve experienced anxiety.
Maybe your stomach feels like it’s clawing its way up your throat every time you have to give a work presentation. Or possibly your palms sweat at the thought of climbing a tall ladder.
Sure, anxiety is uncomfortable, but occasional anxiety is actually normal, even expected. Anxiety can even be helpful in certain situations, motivating us to prepare or alerting us to danger.
However, what happens when anxiety takes over? And instead of just working through the discomfort, it becomes debilitating?
It’s possible you may have an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders are the most common illness in the US, affecting 40 million adults in the US age 18 or older.
Anxiety disorders are characterized by excessive worry or fear in situations that are not actually threatening. And instead of just going away, that worry and fear increase over time, eventually interfering with daily life, like seeing friends and going to work or school.
Anxiety disorders are not one-size-fits-all. In fact, there are several different types of anxiety disorders, each with unique symptoms.
The most common anxiety disorders include: Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Social Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder and phobias.
Let’s break down the common types of anxiety disorders, and what you can do if you are experiencing any of the anxiety symptoms described.
Life often presents situations that call for periods of anxiety, but what separates people with GAD from others that suffer from run-of-the-mill anxiety is that people with GAD are consumed with anxiety for most days of the month, for at least 6 months.
Affecting 6.8 million adults, anything from work, school, personal health, or just normal daily circumstances can trigger anxiety in people with GAD, making everyday life feel overwhelming.
Aside from being unable to control the excessive feelings of worry, other symptoms of GAD may include feeling fatigued and/or restless, irritable, having difficulty sleeping and concentrating, and having muscle tension.
It’s pretty normal to have to give yourself a pep talk before entering a room where you won’t know anyone, or to get the jitters before a first date.
Feeling uncomfortable in those situations can be chalked up to shyness, but social anxiety disorder is way more intense.
For people suffering with SAD, doing simple everyday things in front of other people (especially unfamiliar people!) — like drinking or eating or using a public restroom — causes anxiety and fear.
This extreme fear of social interaction affects nearly 15 million adults. In many cases, people with SAD are so afraid of being judged by others, that they tend to avoid social situations altogether.
Do you feel yourself blush, sweat and tremble when you are around unfamiliar people? Does your heart rate increase or do you feel your mind going blank? These are all symptoms of SAD.
People experiencing SAD may also feel nauseous and sick to their stomach when in social situations, or when they have to perform in front of other people.
Additionally, such extreme shyness may cause people with social anxiety disorder to avoid eye contact, speak in a super soft voice, and have a stiff posture.
Unfortunately, when people have SAD, the fear of being embarrassed, judged, humiliated or rejected often becomes so all-encompassing that it gets in the way of going to school, work, or doing regular daily activities like going to the grocery store.
Your heart pounds. You start to sweat. Suddenly, for no obvious reason, you have an overwhelming sense of fear that lasts for several minutes. This is called a panic attack.
Panic attacks can be pretty frightening. It can feel like you’re having a heart attack, and they can occur at any time — even when there is no real danger.
Not everyone who has panic attacks has a panic disorder, but if the fear of having a panic attack ends up interrupting daily routines so much that you cannot go about your daily life, then you may be one of the six million adults in the US who has a panic disorder.
People with a panic disorder will have sudden and repeated unexpected panic attacks.
During these panic attacks, they may feel:
Out of control
The fear of death or impending doom
A pounding or racing heart
Sweating, chest pains, chills, trembling, weakness, dizziness, nausea, stomach pain, and/or numb hands.
People with panic disorder often have an intense fear about when the next one will happen, which may cause them to avoid places where anxiety or panic attacks have occurred in the past.
Phobias are fears of specific objects or situations. Affecting 19 million adults, it is the most common of the anxiety disorders. There are many different kinds of phobias — from agoraphobia (fear of being outside of the home) to specific phobias (fear of specific objects).
Heights, snakes, mice, spiders, blood — these are just a few examples of some things that people with phobias may fear. And while it’s probably safe to say many people may fear these things, people with phobias experience an intense, irrational fear that is out of proportion to the actual danger.
People with a phobia:
Worry intensely and irrationally about encountering the object or situation they fear.
Experience excessive anxiety if they encounter their fear.
Go out of their way to avoid being in situations where they may encounter their fear.
Anxiety disorders can be all-consuming. The good news is that it is a highly treatable mental illness.
One such treatment is cognitive-behavioral therapy. This type of psychotherapy teaches different ways of thinking, behaving and reacting to different anxiety-producing situations.
Another effective treatment is taking medications. From anti-anxiety medications to antidepressants to beta-blockers (which will help relieve the physical symptoms of anxiety) there are many different medications that help keep anxiety disorders under control.
Choosing the best anxiety treatment plan, medication, and dosage should be done with an expert who specializes in anxiety disorders. Under the right care, it’s possible to manage the anxiety and live a healthy, productive life.