The Top 5 Types of Anxiety Disorders

Occasional anxiety is a normal part of life. You might feel anxious when faced with a tough task at work, or before giving a presentation at school. However, anxiety disorders involve more than temporary, warranted worry or fear.

For a person with an anxiety disorder, the anxiety does not go away and can worsen over time. Symptoms can interfere with daily activities such as job performance, school work and relationships. About 31.1 percent of U.S. adults will experience an anxiety disorder in their lifetime. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health condition in the United States, according to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America.

Anxiety disorders include:

  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
  • Obsessive-compulsive Disorder (OCD)
  • Panic Disorders
  • Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • Social Anxiety Disorder
  • Phobias
  • Separation Anxiety Disorder
  • Agoraphobia

Read on to learn about the top five types of anxiety disorders, how they’re diagnosed and the different treatment options that are available for each disorder.

What Are the Major Types of Anxiety Disorders?

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

People with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) display excessive anxiety or worry about a number of things such as personal health, work, social interactions and daily activities. With GAD these anxiety symptoms occur most days for at least six months. For those who suffer from GAD, fear and anxiety can cause significant problems across all areas of life, such as social interactions, school and work.

Generalized anxiety disorder symptoms include:

  • Feeling restless, wound-up or on edge
  • Being easily fatigued
  • Difficulty concentrating; mind going blank
  • Irritability
  • Muscle tension
  • Difficulty controlling feelings of worry
  • Sleep problems such as difficulty falling or staying asleep, restlessness or unsatisfying sleep

Panic Disorder

People with panic disorder have recurrent, unexpected panic attacks. Panic attacks are sudden periods of intense fear that come on quickly and reach their peak within minutes. Attacks can occur unexpectedly or can be brought on by a trigger, such as a feared object or situation.

During a panic attack, people may experience:

  • Heart palpitations, a pounding heartbeat or an accelerated heart rate (you may feel like you are having a heart attack)
  • Sweating
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Sensations of shortness of breath, smothering or choking
  • Feelings of impending doom
  • Feelings of being out of control

People with panic disorder often worry about when the next attack will happen. They may try to prevent future attacks by avoiding places or situations they associate with panic attacks. Excessive worry about panic attacks and the effort spent trying to avoid attacks can lead to the development of agoraphobia (see below).

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

A person with OCD has thoughts that are difficult to control, and they may find themselves repeating actions over and over.

Those who have OCD can be extremely concerned about germs or “having things in order.” They may worry about feelings of aggression that they have toward others or that someone feels toward you. 

OCD can also make it hard to manage thoughts of taboo subjects like sex, religion or violence. Some people repeatedly perform certain actions, such as constantly checking that a door is locked,  counting things and repeatedly washing their hands.

Phobia Disorders

We all tend to avoid certain things or situations that make us uncomfortable or even fearful. But for someone with a phobia, certain places, events or objects create powerful reactions of strong, irrational fear.

Most people with specific phobias have several things that can trigger those reactions; to avoid panic, they will work hard to avoid their triggers. Depending on the type and number of triggers, attempts to control fear can take over a person’s life.

Phobias

Phobias and specific phobias involve an irrational, overwhelming and excessive fear of specific places, objects or situations. Some of the more common phobias include: 

  • Acrophobia (fear of heights)
  • Claustrophobia (fear of tight spaces)
  • Aerophobia (fear of flying)
  • Hemophobia (fear of blood)
  • Trypanophobia (fear of needles)
  • Aquaphobia (fear of water)

Social Anxiety Disorder (Social Phobia)

Social anxiety disorder, also referred to as social phobia, is a fear of being embarrassed, humiliated or criticized in a public setting, like school or work. Those with social anxiety disorder may have trouble talking with people or being in large groups. It’s not uncommon for people with social anxiety disorder to avoid crowded places and people-filled situations that trigger their phobia. 

More than shyness, this disorder causes intense fear about social interaction, often driven by irrational worries about humiliation (e.g. saying something stupid or not knowing what to say). Someone with social anxiety disorder may not take part in conversations, contribute to class discussions or offer their ideas, and they may become isolated. Panic attacks are a common reaction to anticipated or forced social interaction.

Agoraphobia

Agoraphobia often occurs in response to panic attacks. Those who suffer from agoraphobia feel extreme fear or anxiety about having a panic attack, or fear that something bad may happen in a specific place — usually outside the home. People with agoraphobia often avoid feared places and situations at all costs.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

People with PTSD experience anxiety related to a traumatic experience that has occurred in the past. It is a long-term condition that can cause mental and physical symptoms for many years after the event, especially when not treated. 

Symptoms of PTSD usually start within three months of the incident. In some cases, they don’t appear until months or years later.

If you have PTSD, you may experience: 

  • Flashbacks
  • Bad dreams
  • Frightening thoughts
  • Feelings of tension and anxiety
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Anger for no apparent reason

Some people change their routines to avoid triggers that remind them of the given traumatic event.

Risk Factors and Possible Causes

Researchers are finding that both genetic (disorders may run in families) and environmental factors contribute to the risk of developing an anxiety disorder. Although the risk factors for each type of anxiety disorder can vary, some general risk factors for all types of anxiety disorders include:

  • Temperamental traits of shyness or behavioral inhibition in childhood
  • Exposure to stressful and negative life or environmental events in early childhood or adulthood
  • A history of anxiety or other mental illnesses in the family
  • Some physical health conditions, such as thyroid problems or heart arrhythmias, or caffeine or other substances/medications, can produce or aggravate anxiety symptoms; a physical health examination is helpful in the evaluation of a possible anxiety disorder

Treatment

Different anxiety disorders have their own distinct sets of symptoms. This means that each type of anxiety disorder also has its own treatment plan. However, there are common types of treatment that are used. 

  • Psychotherapy, including cognitive-behavioral therapy
  • Medications, including anti-anxiety medications and antidepressants

Complementary health approaches, including stress and relaxation techniques

Using the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) a mental health professional is able to identify the specific type of anxiety disorder causing symptoms as well as any other possible disorders that may be involved. Tackling all disorders through comprehensive treatment is the best recovery strategy.

If you believe you or a family member are experiencing symptoms of an anxiety disorder, making an appointment with your primary care doctor is a great first step. Taking the first step towards improving your mental health can be tough. But once you do, you can pinpoint what’s wrong and begin focusing on getting better.

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