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What Is Anxiety Disorder? Signs, Symptoms, & When to Seek Help

Illustration of a man holding his hand over his mouth and looking anxious

Introduction and Summary

Most people understand what it’s like to experience anxiety, as some anxiety is a normal part of life. Maybe you have felt it when you bought your first home, or before giving an important speech or presentation. Maybe you felt it just before starting your first serious job. It is common during significant life changes, whether good or bad, to have some feelings of anxiety. Regular anxiety occurs when a challenge appears. Then, the anxiety goes away when that challenge has been resolved. It becomes a problem, however, when anxiety becomes unbearable , significantly interferes with daily functioning, or if it lingers beyond when the challenge is resolved.

Topics we will explore include:

What Is an Anxiety Disorder?

An anxiety disorder is a type of mental disorder that causes a person to be in a frequent state of fear, worry, and/or distress. This anxiety can be debilitating and excessive and results in individuals fearing (and ruminating) about everyday circumstances (such as social situations, elevators, germs, or going outside) and/or things they once enjoyed. Common symptoms of anxiety include:

  • Having negative or fearful thoughts about the future
  • Feeling like you are always in danger
  • Having a racing heartbeat
  • Feeling nervous or tense
  • Being restless
  • Difficulty falling asleep and/or staying asleep
  • Sweating
  • Trembling
  • Rapid breathing
  • Having the urge to avoid situations that provoke anxiety
  • Difficulty controlling worry

In order for a person to be diagnosed with any kind of anxiety disorder, they must meet these two criteria: their nervousness must be out of proportion to their current situation, and it must be a hindrance in their everyday life (relationships, work, school, etc).

Types of Anxiety Disorders

Some commonly known types of anxiety disorders are:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD): GAD includes excessive anxiety and worry toward a wide variety of different events and situations in one’s life with little reason for either.
  • Social anxiety disorder: Also called social phobia, involves an irrational fear of being judged, embarrassed, or viewed negatively by others in social situations.
  • Panic disorder: Panic disorder is a frequent occurrence of unexpected panic attacks. A person with this disorder is in constant fear of the next panic attack and typically does everything in their power to avoid having another one.
  • Agoraphobia: Agoraphobia is a fear of being outside their safe zone (such as being outside) or being in large crowds where they may be unable to get out. A person suffering from this disorder lives in perpetual fear of being trapped.
  • Specific phobia: Specific phobia involves having intense fear toward certain situations (e.g. flying) or things (e.g. spiders).

These are just some of the many anxiety disorders that are plaguing millions of people. If you have anxiety symptoms, or if you suspect that you have a specific anxiety disorder, there is no reason to continue to suffer—it’s best that you seek help.

Common Causes of Anxiety Disorders

The causes of anxiety disorders are not straightforward because there are many different variables, and there are competing theories. Additionally, there is still inadequate evidence of the causes of anxiety and most psychiatric conditions. It has been hypothesized that anxiety originally developed through evolution out of a necessity for humans to survive.

When early humans were faced with threatening stimuli, their anxiety sparked a fight or flight response to either combat or run away from the threat. Thus, anxiety could be considered a lingering “gift” from our early ancestors, as well as a reminder of how far the human species has come. It wasn’t that many generations ago when our primitive ancestors had to ward off predators and remain on high alert.

Cognitive behavioral therapy is the style of therapy that is proven to be most effective for treating anxiety and other psychological conditions. It rests on the idea that negative thoughts (such as “others are going to judge me” and “nobody will ever like me”) are the cause of negative feelings (including anxiety, worry, and nervousness). It is a common misconception, according to cognitive behaviorists, to think that it’s the situations and circumstances of life that cause negative emotions, when research shows it is actually the negative (and often unhelpful, unrealistic, or distorted) thoughts about situations and circumstances that cause negative emotional states.

What causes negative and anxious thinking commonly boils down to what makes us human: our biology/genetics (nature) and environment (nurture). A person who has a genetic disposition could be vulnerable to any form of anxiety disorders, meaning a person who has biological family members with anxiety is more likely to have anxiety-related issues than people who do not.

Researchers have determined that three specific parts of the brain play a role in anxiety activation: the cerebral cortex, which is the outermost part of the brain; the amygdala, that is in the center of the brain and processes emotions; and the hypothalamus, which prepares the body for action (fight or flight). Some researchers also believe that chemical imbalances in the brain are the catalyst of many mental disorders, including anxiety. A chemical imbalance happens when the neurotransmitters (chemical messengers in the brain that send signals between neurons or nerve cells) are either too few or too abundant. Examples of these natural chemicals are serotonin and dopamine.

While they don’t cause anxiety, the following risk factors increase the likelihood of developing anxiety:

  • History of other forms of mental health conditions, such as clinical depression
  • Surviving a traumatic event
  • Having certain personality characteristics (e.g. more uptight or perfectionistic)
  • Built-up stress
  • Having a biological family member(s) with a history of mental illness
  • Abusing alcohol or other drugs
  • Having a serious or chronic illness (e.g. cancer, diabetes, stroke, and chronic pain)
  • Being in an unhealthy relationship or a stressful work environment without a clear end or change in sight
  • Taking certain medications (talk to your doctor before discontinuing or changing any prescribed medications)

When to Seek Help for Anxiety

Depending on each individual’s disorder and their triggers, the approach to recovery is going to be unique. It may include individual therapy, medication, self-help, or a change in lifestyle. If you are living with any type of anxiety disorder, then you already know how incapacitating and overwhelming an illness it can be, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

You can be in charge of your anxiety instead of letting it be in charge of you. Living life with less stress and anxiety can make life far more fulfilling and enjoyable. Getting help doesn’t make you weak or a failure—in fact, it is reasonable and a sign of strength to address your ailment when it is not resolving on its own. If you had any other illness or ailment; cancer, a broken arm, diabetes or heart disease, wouldn’t you do everything in your power to manage the condition to the best of your ability? Anxiety and other mental illnesses are no different.

Seeking help for anxiety is encouraged under any of the following circumstances when:

  • Your anxiety symptoms are causing significant problems or impairment in your relationships, at work, at school, or other areas of life
  • You are avoiding situations that provoke anxiety (e.g. public speaking, traveling, leaving your home)
  • Current attempts to cope are unsuccessful
  • Anxiety is accompanied by depression
  • You are having suicidal thoughts

Reaching out for help may be anxiety-provoking in and of itself. Therapy requires you to open up to a stranger about your personal problems, and treatment commonly involves doing things that are outside your comfort zone. Despite this, the outcome of completing treatment and living a life with less anxiety can be incredibly satisfying and rewarding.

Continue reading to learn more about how anxiety is treated.

How K Health Can Help

Anxiety and depression are among the most under-reported and under-treated diseases in America. Nearly 20% of adults in the US suffer from mental health illness and fewer than half receive treatment. Our mission is to increase access to treatment for those suffering in silence.

You can start controlling your anxiety and depression and get access to the treatment you need with K Health. Starting at $19/month get prescriptions for mental health medications plus unlimited doctor visits through the K Health app. Start your free assessment here.

Dr. Ross Nelson, PsyD

Dr. Ross Nelson is a licensed clinical psychologist and entrepreneur in Palo Alto, CA. He received his doctorate from the California School of Professional Psychology, and has professional expertise in cognitive behavioral therapy. He has worked in outpatient services at Kaiser Permanente, and as a psychologist for the startup, Crossover Health. Today, Dr. Nelson runs a private practice and is also the founder of Welleo Health. He is passionate about evidence-based therapy and addressing the global mental health crisis.