What Is An Anxiety Disorder? Psychologists Break It Down

What is an anxiety disorder?
Photo Illustration by Keila Gonzalez
Photo Illustration by Keila Gonzalez

This informational guide, part of POPSUGAR's Condition Center, lays out the realities of this health concern: what it is, what it can look like, and strategies that medical experts say are proven to help. You should always consult your doctor regarding matters pertaining to your health and before starting any course of medical treatment.

Anxiety is a universal emotion. While it isn't pleasant to experience, it can be helpful at times, giving you a shot of energy and focus before a big speech, a major surgery, or a tough conversation with a loved one. But if you feel anxious most of the time or the symptoms (like trouble breathing, heart palpitations, and obsessive thinking — for example) interfere with your regular life, you may have an anxiety disorder. So what is an anxiety disorder, exactly? And how can you tell if you're experiencing anxiety disorder symptoms? Ahead, 2 psychologists break down anxiety disorder types, symptoms, causes, and best treatment options.

What Is an Anxiety Disorder?

Anxiety disorders are incredibly common, affecting about 31 percent of people in the US at some point in their life. Their symptoms can range from mild to severe. "Anxiety disorders can diminish your day-to-day well-being and take a toll on your relationships, your social life, your ability to do your job, and your health," says Kathleen Cairns, PsyD, a clinical psychologist in private practice in West Hartford, CT. Anxiety sufferers often have insomnia, for instance, as well as digestive problems, headaches, and chronic pain.

Types of Anxiety Disorders

These are three of the most common types of anxiety disorders, according to Dr. Cairns:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder, in which you are flooded by intense worry about common problems, such as family, work, money, or health.
  • Phobias, which are characterized by extreme fear of something specific (e.g., small spaces, heights, social events).
  • Panic disorder, in which your anxiety becomes so overwhelming that your heart races, you sweat and tremble, you have chest pain, and you have an impending sense of doom.

Anxiety Disorder Symptoms

Anxiety disorder symptoms can show up in number of ways, including physically, mentally, and behaviorally, per the Cleveland Clinic:

Physical symptoms of anxiety

  • Cold or sweaty hands
  • Dry mouth
  • Heart palpitations
  • Nausea
  • Tingling or numb hands or feet
  • Tense muscles
  • Trouble breathing

Mental symptoms of anxiety

  • Panic
  • Nightmares
  • Obsessive thinking
  • Flashbacks to traumatic experiences

Behavioral symptoms of anxiety

  • Trouble sleeping
  • Inability to be still
  • Ritualistic behaviors

Causes of Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety disorders can be triggered by a number of biological and environmental factors. These include:

  • Genetics. Certain anxiety disorders may run in families, research has shown.
  • Stress and difficult life experiences, including childhood and adult trauma.
  • Hormones. "Women are twice as likely to have anxiety as men, partly because of hormones," says Ken Abrams, PhD, a professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. Past research has linked fluctuations in sex hormones like estrogen to a vulnerability to mood disorders like anxiety.
  • Brain biology likely contributes to the risk as well. Studies have shown that people with anxiety have increased activity in certain areas of their brains that relate to emotion processing; this could be caused by genetic and/or environmental factors.

How Are Anxiety Disorders Diagnosed?

"There are no lab tests or scans that can diagnose anxiety disorders," per Cleveland Clinic. But a mental health professional (like a psychiatrist or psychologist) will be able to assess your reported systems and observe your behaviors to make an an assessment. They may also consult the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) when going about determining a diagnosis, Cleveland Clinic reports.

Anxiety Disorder Treatments

"Anxiety is usually treated with psychotherapy, medication, or both," Dr. Abrams says.

A variety of therapy types can be useful for the treatment of anxiety, including cognitive behavior therapy, which teaches people with anxiety to notice their worried thoughts and replace them with more realistic ones, Dr. Abrams says. Exposure therapy, which focuses on gradually confronting the fears underlying your anxiety, can be helpful as well. Another effective option: acceptance and commitment therapy, which teaches anxiety sufferers techniques like mindfulness and goal setting.

"Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, a type of antidepressant, are helpful for some people. So are benzodiazepines, like Valium, although they can only be used briefly — if you have anxiety about an upcoming event, for instance — because they can cause dependence and withdrawal," Dr. Abrams says. Beta blockers, which lower blood pressure to reduce the physical responses associated with anxiety, like a racing heart, are also useful and are commonly prescribed. Unlike benzodiazepines, they are less addictive.

Research has shown that exercise can be calming for people with anxiety, too. It can also be useful to connect with other people with anxiety in a group therapy setting. "It's easy to assume you're the only person who experiences these feelings, which makes you feel worse — so group therapy can be comforting," Dr. Abrams says. "Treatment doesn't completely cure anxiety, but it can help you get on top of it so it doesn't take as much of a toll on your life."

If you or someone you know is struggling with anxiety, the National Alliance on Mental Illness has resources available, including a helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6424). You can also dial 988, the nation's new mental health crisis hotline.

— Additional reporting by Alexis Jones

Alexis Jones is the senior health and fitness editor at POPSUGAR. Her passions and areas of expertise include women's health and fitness, mental health, racial and ethnic disparities in healthcare, and chronic conditions. Prior to joining POPSUGAR, she was the senior editor at Health magazine. Her other bylines can be found at Women's Health, Prevention, Marie Claire, and more.

Ginny Graves is an award-winning writer in the San Francisco Bay Area whose work focuses on science, psychology, health, nature, and the human-animal bond.