What are anxiety disorders?

If you are suffering from an anxiety disorder you are not alone. In fact, as a group, anxiety disorders are the most common type of mental health concern. Nearly 1 in 5 American adults experience anxiety symptoms are severe enough to significantly decrease their functioning and/or quality of life.

Anxiety disorders are characterized by the following types of symptoms:

(1) feelings of fear, anxiety, or nervousness;
(2) physical symptoms of fear and anxiety, including increased heart rate and breathing, as well as muscle tension;
(3) anxious or worried thoughts, such as anticipating threat or negative outcomes in situations, as well as worrying about things that might happen in the future;
(4) avoidance behaviors, including avoiding or limiting situations or activities that trigger anxiety reactions;
(5) safety behaviors, or behaviors that are designed to decrease feelings of anxiety but can perpetuate anxiety symptoms over time (i.e., carrying anxiety medications, having a “safe” person nearby).

Experiencing some anxiety is a normal part of being human. However, for many people, feelings of fear and anxiety and the avoidance that stems from these feelings leads to significant decreases in quality of life and functioning. In these cases individuals may be experiencing an anxiety disorder and would benefit from appropriate treatment.

Below are brief descriptions of the common anxiety disorders we treat at the Anxiety Center.

Panic disorder

Individuals with panic disorder experience recurrent panic attacks that feel out of the blue. Panic attacks are rapid surges of fear that typically peak within a few minutes and can include a variety of intense physical sensations (i.e., rapid heart rate, shortness of breath, sweating, shaking, chest pain, nausea, dizziness, tingling sensations, feeling hot or cold, feelings of choking). Panic attacks can also involve feelings that things are not real or that one is detached from oneself, fears of losing control or going “crazy,” and often, fears of dying. The experience of these panic attacks are so distressing, that those with panic disorder often have a lot of worry concern about having additional panic attacks, or fears about what will happen when these panic attacks occur (i.e., losing control, dying, “going crazy”). Some individuals also change their behaviors to avoid situations and activities that might seem to trigger panic episodes. The experience of panic disorder can be quite scary and often individuals make repeated visits to the ER or the doctor due to concerns that they may be having a heart attack or that something might be medically wrong with them. Medical tests are typically negative and suggest that anxiety may the cause of these symptoms.

Agoraphobia

Agoraphobia involves fears of being in situations from which escape might be difficult or help might not be available if panic symptoms, or other embarrassing symptoms (i.e., losing bowel or bladder control, fainting, vomiting), might occur). Typically, the types of situations that are avoided include things like being away from home, being in open spaces (parking lots, bridges, markets), enclosed spaces (movie theaters, stores), public transportation (buses, trains, planes), and standing in lines or being in crowds. People with agoraphobia fear the possibility that such “symptom attacks” will occur and often engage in greater levels of avoidance over time, to the point that some people can become home bound.

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)

People with GAD often describe themselves (or are described by others) as “worriers” and experience excessive and intrusive worried thoughts that are difficult to control. These individuals are often worried about a range of topics (i.e., health, the well being of loved ones, finances, work, school, world events) and their worry is typically accompanied by at least some of the following symptoms: feeling restless or on edge, being easily fatigued, concentration difficulties, feelings or irritability, muscle tension, and problems with sleep. GAD can range from worries that mainly focus on a single topic, to worries that are wide ranging and can focus on all aspects of life.

Social anxiety disorder

The defining feature of social anxiety is a persistent fear of negative evaluation from others in social (i.e., conversations, parties, meeting new people) or performance (i.e., giving a speech, job interviews) situations. Socially anxious people often worry that they will appear anxious or awkward in social situations and also anticipate that others will perceive them negatively. These worries about social situations typically lead to avoidance of at least some social situations and these avoidance behaviors can significantly interfere with things like making friends, dating, and developing relationships with others. Worries about public speaking and talking in front of others can also negatively impact school and work performance.

Specific phobias

Phobias are the most common type of anxiety problem and involve high levels of fear and distress in response to the feared triggers or situations. Common phobias include fears of flying, heights, animals/insects, blood/needles/injections, medical environments (i.e., the dentist), elevators, and fears of vomiting, swallowing, and choking. The fear that people with phobias experience is out of proportion to the actual danger posed the situations or objects they fear and can, in some instances, be quite debilitating.

Health anxiety

Health anxiety (also referred to as illness anxiety disorder) involves excessive fears about having or developing a serious illness. These fears are often accompanied by a range of excessive health behaviors, including checking the body for signs or symptoms of an illness, considerable time spend engaging in internet research about health conditions, and seeking out numerous medical tests or opinions. Other individuals with health anxiety avoid health-related information, as well as heath care professionals. Some people with health anxiety have worries that primarily focuses on a single health problem (i.e., cancer, a neurological disease), whereas others may be worried about a range of health problems over time.

Other anxiety-related problems we commonly treat include:

  • Sleep issues (insomnia, nightmares)
  • Stress
  • Depression