The category of anxiety disorders includes several mental health disorders whose symptoms include intense and excessive fear, apprehension, and/or worry. While virtually all people at some point experience these emotions, individuals who struggle with anxiety disorders develop symptoms of such severity that they feel forced to change behaviours and otherwise alter their lives as a means of coping with the psychological stress or avoiding its onset. When anxiety symptoms become severe enough, treatment is a necessary step to manage your anxiety.
The Mental Health Foundation (MHF) reports that about one in 20 individuals in the UK may be affected by generalised anxiety disorder, but that generalised anxiety disorder accounts for almost 30% of those who are treated by their GPs for mental health issues.
MHF statistics also indicate that between 3% and 4% of the UK population has agoraphobia, and slightly more than 1% of individuals in the UK have panic disorder. The rate of anxiety disorders is higher among women than among men. When classified by age group, anxiety disorders are most common among adults in the 35-59 demographic.
Types of Anxiety Disorders
The specific types of anxiety disorders are primarily differentiated by the causes of the symptoms, though the types, duration, and severity of symptoms may also vary. The following are among the most common types of anxiety disorders:
Generalised anxiety disorder
Symptoms of this disorder include disproportionate worry or fear that something bad is about to happen, even when there is no evidence that such an event may occur. People who have generalised anxiety disorder will experience a virtually constant pervasive sense of foreboding and may be so distressed by this emotion that they find it difficult or impossible to work, go to school, or otherwise participate in a productive and satisfying life.
A person who has agoraphobia will experience excessive fears or worries related to the spaces in which they fin themselves. Experiences that precipitate the onset of these symptoms can include being in or thinking about being in open spaces, being in a crowd of people, standing in a queue, using public transportation, or even simply being outside of one’s own home. At the most severe, symptoms of agoraphobia can simulate those of a panic attack, with accelerated heart rate, perspiration, sensation of choking, and other highly distressing experiences.
When an individual has panic disorder, they may be prone to experiencing the rapid onset of intense fear and related unpleasant physical and psychological symptoms, often with no apparent external cause or trigger. During these experiences, which are referred to as panic attacks, a person may feel incapable of catching their breath, may perspire excessively, and may have the sensation that they are choking.
Other symptoms that occur during panic attacks are nausea, trembling, dizziness, and rapid heartbeat. Some people experience temporary states of depersonalisation and/or derealisation during panic attacks. The distress of the attacks themselves and the unpredictability of when they will occur can combine to undermine a person’s ability to follow a healthy and predictable daily routine.
Social anxiety disorder
Sometimes referred to as social phobia, social anxiety disorder involves distressing symptoms that are related to fears of being judged or scrutinised. People who have social anxiety disorder may experience intense and excessive apprehension or worry prior to meeting new people, giving a presentation in front of a group, or even eating among a group of people.
The type and intensity of the symptoms may vary from person to person, but the commonality among individuals who have social anxiety disorder is that their distress is related to being embarrassed, criticised, and/or rejected because of how they do or do not behave.
A person who struggles with specific phobia will experience intense anxiety, fear, worry, and related symptoms because of a specific object, situation, or event. For example, people who are afraid of heights, insects, or being on aeroplanes may all be dealing with specific phobia. While it is normal to feel minimal apprehension about potentially unpleasant or upsetting situations or objects, the severity of symptoms associated with specific phobia can disrupt a person’s ability to live a healthy and satisfying life.
Signs and symptoms of anxiety disorders
The following are among the more common indicators that a person may have developed an anxiety disorder:
- Struggling to meet daily responsibilities
- Withdrawing and isolating oneself
- Expressing apprehensiveness about meeting new people
- Refusing to leave one’s home
- Taking great pains to avoid certain people, places, events, or objects
- Frequent absences from work, school, or other obligations
- Muscle tension
- Elevated heart rate
- Increased blood pressure
- Chest pains
- Excessive perspiration
- Sensation of choking
- Excessive worry and apprehension
- Problems with focus or concentration
- Nightmares or night terrors
- Racing thoughts
- Suicidal ideation
- Mood swings
- Suicidal ideation
Causes and risk factors for anxiety disorders
The following are among the factors that may influence whether or not a person experiences an anxiety disorder:
Experts have identified several genes that may influence vulnerability to panic disorder, and research indicates that heritable traits such as behavioural inhibition and fear of negative evaluation may increase risk for social anxiety disorder. Research also indicates that agoraphobia has a 61% heritability rate, while generalised anxiety disorder has a 33% heritability rate.
Negative experiences with drugs, disease, and death in one’s family can heighten a person’s likelihood for developing panic disorder. Adversity, maltreatment, and other negative experiences during childhood can increase a person’s risk for developing agoraphobia and social anxiety disorder.
- Gender (women are more likely than men are to develop anxiety disorders)
- Age (anxiety disorders are most common between ages 35 and 59)
- Behavioural inhibition
- Childhood adversity
- Parental over-protection during childhood
- Family history of anxiety disorders
Effects of anxiety disorders
Untreated anxiety disorders can lead to the following negative effects and outcomes:
- Diminished quality of life
- Decline in physical health
- Poor self-esteem
- Family discord
- Strained interpersonal relationships
- Substandard performance at work
- Job loss
- Financial difficulties
- Onset co-occurring mental health disorders
- Exacerbation of existing co-occurring mental health disorders
- Substance abuse
- Social withdrawal
- Suicidal ideation
Individuals who struggle with anxiety disorders may also develop the following co-occurring mental health disorders:
- Bipolar disorders
- Depressive disorders
- Substance use disorders
- Other anxiety disorders