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Understanding Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety Disorders Explained


Updated March 19, 2009

What are Anxiety Disorders?

Anxiety is a normal human experience. In fact, it is considered a beneficial response in certain situations. For example, dangerous situations trigger anxiety in the form of a fight-or-flight stress response that is necessary for our survival. Or, sometimes anxiety gives us the necessary push we need to get things done.

While it’s pretty clear that anxiety is normal and even beneficial, for many people it becomes a problem. And, when anxiety becomes a problem, the effects can be physical, emotional and behavioral. Your symptoms may lead to an anxiety disorder if they are:

  • severe or last a long time
  • out of proportion to the situation at hand
  • causing extreme behaviors (i.e., avoidance) to reduce the anxiety

The following is an overview of specific anxiety disorders currently identified in the DSM-IV-TR:

Panic Disorder

Recurring panic attacks are the hallmark features of panic disorder. Panic attacks are sudden and intense feelings of terror, fear or apprehension, without the presence of actual danger. The symptoms of a panic attack usually happen suddenly, peak within 10 minutes and then subside. However, some attacks may last longer or may occur in succession, making it difficult to determine when one attack ends and another begins.

After having a panic attack, the individual may continue to experience extreme anxiety for several hours. More often than not, the panic episode causes excessive worry about having another attack.

Agoraphobia without History of Panic Disorder

The central feature of agoraphobia is intense fear (panic response) of being in certain situations in which escape is difficult or potentially embarrassing, or where help is not readily available. Such situations may include leaving home alone, being home alone, traveling by car, train or bus, being in an elevator, being in a crowd, being in a large store or mall, being on a bridge or standing in a line.

The fear associated with agoraphobia results in behavioral changes in order to avoid feared situations. An individual with agoraphobia may survey settings for escape routes and avoid situations where an exit is not easily available. In extreme cases, the fear may become so consuming that the individual will not leave the house alone or becomes homebound altogether.

Specific Phobia

A specific phobia is an irrational fear of a specific situation or object. The fear is so intense that it causes one to avoid the object of the phobia at all costs. Common examples of specific phobias include:

  • fear of flying (aerophobia)
  • fear of heights (acrophobia)
  • fear of enclosed spaces (claustrophobia)
  • fear of spiders (arachnophobia)

Social Phobia

Social phobia is an irrational fear of being in social situations. Individuals with social phobia may avoid meeting new people, engaging in group activities or being in crowds. Usually, the underlying fear is of embarrassing oneself in front of others.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

OCD involves the experience of troubling intrusive obsessions (thoughts) and/or ritualistic types of behaviors in an effort to reduce anxiety. Examples of OCD symptoms may include:

  • Repeatedly washing one’s hands because of a fear of germs.
  • Checking behaviors, such as repeatedly checking a door to make sure it’s locked.
  • Having troubling thoughts of doing something inappropriate.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

PTSD is a condition that is caused by a reaction to a traumatic experience. Symptoms of PTSD include:

  • flashbacks of the trauma
  • panic attacks
  • nightmares surrounding the trauma
  • avoiding reminders of the trauma

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

GAD is characterized by excessive worry about routine matters. The worry associated with GAD is out of proportion and may even exist when there is little or no need for concern.

GAD symptoms include:

  • overall sense of apprehension or fear over routine matters
  • difficulty sleeping
  • muscle tension
  • concentration problems
  • irritability
  • being overly vigilant

Getting Help

The symptoms of an anxiety disorder can be frightening and potentially disabling. But, treatment can provide relief for the vast majority of suffers. The sooner treatment begins after the onset of an anxiety disorder, the more quickly symptom reduction or elimination can be achieved. A variety of professionals treat anxiety disorders using psychotherapy, medications or both.


Breaking Free From Anxiety Disorders – Self-Care Handbook. (1998). Deerfield, MA: Channing L. Bete Co.

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