Anxiety: Everything you need to know

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Anxiety affects everyone in different ways. Sometimes, the feelings of fear and dread don’t go away or get worse over time. Here, you can learn about anxiety, who it affects, and how to manage it.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is your body’s natural response to stress. It’s a feeling of fear or apprehension about what’s to come. For example, going to a job interview or giving a speech on the first day of school may cause some people to feel fearful and nervous.

But if your feelings of anxiety are extreme, last for at least 6 months, and are interfering with your life, you may have an anxiety disorder.

What are anxiety disorders?

It’s normal to feel anxious about moving to a new place, starting a new job, or taking a test. This type of anxiety is unpleasant, but it may motivate you to work harder and do a better job. Ordinary anxiety is a feeling that comes and goes but doesn’t interfere with your everyday life.

In the case of an anxiety disorder, the feeling of fear may be with you all the time. It’s intense and sometimes debilitating.

This type of anxiety may cause you to stop doing things you enjoy. For example, it may prevent you from entering an elevator, crossing the street, or even leaving your home in extreme cases. If left untreated, the anxiety will keep getting worse.

Anxiety disorders are the most common form of emotional disorder and can affect anyone. But, according to the American Psychiatric Association, women are more likely than men to receive a diagnosis of an anxiety disorder.

What are the types of anxiety disorders?

Anxiety is a vital part of several different disorders. These include:

  • Panic disorder. This means you experience recurring panic attacks at unexpected times.
  • Phobia. This is an excessive fear of a specific object, situation, or activity.
  • Social anxiety disorder. This is an extreme fear of being judged by others in social situations.
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder. This means you have recurring irrational thoughts that lead you to perform specific, repeated behaviors.
  • Separation anxiety disorder. This means you have a fear of being away from home or your loved ones.
  • Illness anxiety disorder. This is anxiety about your health (formerly called hypochondria).

In addition, a number of mental health and medical conditions may feature anxiety as a symptom. These include:

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This is anxiety following a traumatic event.
  • Major depressive disorders. A strong relationship exists between depression and anxiety.
  • Chronic disease. Managing conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and diabetes may result in anxiety symptoms.
  • Inflammatory conditions. Anxiety can lead to chronic inflammation and diseases such as arthritis
  • Substance use disorders: many people with anxiety may try to self-medicate to help manage their symptoms.
  • Chronic pain. Anxiety is often foundTrusted Source in those with chronic pain disorders.

What are the symptoms of anxiety?

Anxiety feels different depending on the person experiencing it. Feelings can range from butterflies in your stomach to a racing heart. You might feel out of control like there’s a disconnect between your mind and body.

You may have a general feeling of fear and worry, or you may fear a specific place or event. In some cases, you may experience a panic attack.

Symptoms of anxiety can include:

  • anxious thoughts or beliefs that are difficult to control
  • restlessness
  • trouble concentrating
  • difficulty falling asleep
  • fatigue
  • irritability
  • unexplained aches and pains

Your anxiety symptoms might be different from someone else’s. That’s why it’s essential to know how anxiety can present itself. Read about the many types of anxiety symptoms you might experience.

What is a panic attack?

A panic attack is a feeling of intense fear that comes on suddenly and peaks within 10 to 20 minutes. The initial trigger of the fear can be known or unknown.

The physical symptoms can mimic a heart attack. Once you’re experiencing a panic attack, the symptoms may get worse if you believe you may be having a heart attack or having a mental health emergency. Another common fear that may exacerbate a panic attack is the fear that you might be judged negatively if you’re having an attack in public.

Panic attacks can vary greatly, and symptoms may differ among individuals. In addition, the many symptoms of anxiety don’t happen to everyone, and they can change over time.

Common symptoms of a panic attack include:

  • chest pain
  • feeling of choking
  • fear of losing control
  • feeling of impending doom
  • sweating, chills, and hot flashes
  • shaking
  • numbness and tingling of hands, feet, or face
  • nausea or upset stomach
  • shortness of breath
  • fear of dying

When you experience repeated panic or anxiety attacks, you may have a panic disorder.

What causes anxiety?

Experts aren’t sure of the exact cause of anxiety. But it’s likely that a combination of factors play a role.

The causes of anxiety may include:

  • stress
  • other medical issues such as depression or diabetes
  • first degree relatives with generalized anxiety disorder
  • environmental concerns, such as child abuse
  • substance use
  • situations such as surgery or occupational hazard

In addition, researchers believe that it stems from the areas of the brain responsible for controlling fear and the storing and retrieval of emotional and fear-related memories.

Who is at risk of anxiety disorders?

With each type of anxiety, there are different risk factors. But there are some general influences, including:

  • Personality traits. This includes shyness and nervousness in childhood.
  • Life history. This includes being exposed to negative or stressful live events.
  • Genetics. Of those who have a diagnosis of anxiety, 25 percent have a first degree relative who also has a diagnosis of anxiety.
  • Other health conditions. Thyroid problems and other health conditions can make you prone to anxiety.
  • Stimulants. Consuming caffeine, specific substances, and medications can worsen your symptoms.

Are there tests that diagnose anxiety?

A single test can’t diagnose anxiety. Instead, an anxiety diagnosis requires a lengthy process of physical examinations, mental health tests, and psychological questionnaires.

Some doctors or healthcare professionals may conduct a physical exam, including blood or urine tests to rule out underlying medical conditions that could contribute to the symptoms you’re experiencing.

Several anxiety tests and scales are also used to help a doctor assess the level of anxiety you’re experiencing.

What are treatments for anxiety?

Once you’ve received a diagnosis of anxiety, you can explore treatment options with a doctor.

But treatment can help you overcome the symptoms and lead a more manageable day-to-day life.

Treatment for anxiety falls into three categories:

  • Psychotherapy. Therapy can include cognitive behavioral therapy and exposure response prevention.
  • Complemental health techniques. Mindfulness, yoga, and self-management strategies such as stress management are ways to treat your anxiety using alternative methods.
  • Medication. Doctors prescribe antianxiety and antidepressant drugs.

Meeting with a therapist or psychologist can help you learn tools to use and strategies to cope with stress when it occurs.

The Mental Health Resources page can provide tips on finding a psychiatrist, or a doctor who specializes in mental health, to fit your needs.

Medications typically used to treat anxiety include benzodiazepines for short-term symptom relief, but they’re avoided if possible due to the high risk of dependence. Other antianxiety or antidepressant medications such as escitalopram effectively alter your brain chemistry to improve mood and reduce stress.

Some other commonly used medications include:

  • Selective serotonin uptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Escitalopram, fluoxetine, and paroxetine are common SSRIs.
  • Selective norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs). Duloxetine and venlafaxine are common SNRIs.
  • Antipsychotics. Quetiapine and aripiprazole are common antipsychotics.
  • Benzodiazepines. Diazepam and clonazepam are common benzodiazepines.
  • Anxiolytics. Buspirone is a common anxiolytic.