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What is an Anxiety Disorder?

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health disorders. Nearly all people experience anxiety at times, such as prior to public speaking or taking an exam.

If you think you’re struggling with an Anxiety Disorder, you’re not alone. The statistics for anxiety disorders are staggering:

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S.

Over 40 million American adults are afflicted by anxiety disorders

18% of the U.S. population is currently suffering from an Anxiety Disorder

40% of American adults have experienced an Anxiety Disorder at some point in their life

There are several different types of anxiety disorders. The most common anxiety disorders are:


Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

Panic Attacks


Social Anxiety Disorder

Separation Anxiety Disorder

Selective Mutism Disorder

Specific Phobias

These disorders take different forms, but share a common feature of excessive fear or anxiety. Fear is the emotion people feel in response to an immediate threat, whether real or imagined. Anxiety is the anticipation of future threat. Another common feature of anxiety disorders is avoidance behavior, such as excessive hand-washing to prevent contamination (active avoidance) or not leaving home for fear of having a panic attack (passive avoidance).

Anxiety disorders or anxiety-like symptoms can also be caused by substance use or withdrawal, prescribed medications, or the physical effects of a medical condition.

Anxiety is a normal, expected, and common experience in life. As human beings, we worry about keeping ourselves and our loved ones safe, and anxiety is an important evolutionary tool to ensure our survival. But in the era of constant news and information about potential threats to our safety, it can be hard to determine what is reasonable to worry about – and when your level of anxiety becomes problematic.

Anxiety can also become a problem. Many people worry about the future by catastrophizing, or assuming the very worst will happen. We think that if we assume the worst, we will be prepared for whatever happens. We also predict that we will be relieved if what happens isn’t the worst possible outcome we’ve imagined.

The psychological experience of anxiety is often accompanied by physical symptoms, such as an elevated heart rate, more rapid, shallow breathing, muscle tension, disrupted sleep, and gastrointestinal distress. Chronic anxiety can create a vicious cycle in which we are constantly on edge. When we feel constantly on edge, we often end up worrying more. And when we worry excessively and feel physically unwell, we are less able to cope effectively with stress. That’s where a lot of us get stuck.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder or GAD is a psychiatric disorder characterized by a constant sense of worry and fear that interferes with daily life. People with Generalized Anxiety Disorder may experience feelings of dread, distress, or agitation for no discernible reason – psychiatrists refer to this unexplained, trigger-less anxiety as “free floating anxiety.” Though many people with GAD realize that their worry is unrealistic or unwarranted, feelings of anxiety persist and seem unmanageable, leaving sufferers feeling out of control.

Panic Attacks are short (typically less than 15 minute) episodes of intense fear that are often accompanied by serious physical symptoms and uncontrollable feelings of dread and doom. A panic attack differs from a normal fear response in that it strikes without the presence of a threat or an oncoming attack. A person who experiences several panic attacks may develop a Panic Disorder, where the individual begins to spend a significant amount of their time worrying about having another attack, worrying that they are losing their mind, or changing their daily routine because of the panic attacks.

Separation Anxiety Disorder describes an individual’s feelings of persistent and excessive anxiety related to current or oncoming separation from an attachment figure (someone or something that provides the individual with comfort). Separation Disorder frequently occurs in children, and can induce long-lasting, continuous anxiety for periods up to six weeks. Individuals afflicted by separation anxiety disorder experience overwhelming distress and anxiety when separated from their attachment figure.

Social Anxiety Disorder or SAD, also known as Social Phobia, is characterized by a strong and persistent fear of social or performance situations in which humiliation or embarrassment may occur. Social anxiety involves overwhelming worry and self-consciousness about everyday social situations. The worry often centers on a fear of being judged by others, or behaving in a way that might cause embarrassment or lead to ridicule. SAD often prevents people from having normal friendships, interactions, or romantic relationships, and can keep sufferers from functioning in daily life, at work, or at school. Additionally, people with SAD sometimes experience intense worry, fear, or dread about a social situation days or weeks in advance.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder or OCD1 is characterized by intrusive obsessive thoughts that result in compulsive ritualistic behaviors and routines. While it’s possible to have only obsessive symptoms, or only compulsive symptoms, they usually occur in conjunction. People suffering from OCD experience uncontrollable, distressing thoughts or fears about certain things (such as dirt, germs, or order) which then lead to compulsive behaviors performed as an attempt to alleviate worry or anxiety. Just being a “neat freak” or afraid of germs doesn’t necessarily constitute OCD – OCD is diagnosed by obsessions and compulsions which significantly interfere with daily life.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD1 is an Anxiety Disorder that may develop after witnessing a deeply distressing or disturbing experience, or after experiencing a serious injury. PTSD can also develop after a threat of death or serious injury, even if no one was physically harmed. While most people experience anxious reactions after a serious traumatic effect, PTSD develops when these symptoms and negative reactions remain for long periods of time and begin to disrupt daily life and functioning. Sufferers of PTSD experience feelings of intense fear, lack of control, and helplessness as a result of their traumatic experience.

Selective Mutism occurs when an individual has difficulty speaking or communicating in certain environments. Selective mutism usually occurs in children – children with the disorder speak at home, with friends, or with family, but not in other situations like at school or in public. The disorder usually presents itself very early, in children under five. In selective mutism, the failure to speak and communicate interferes with daily life and lasts at least a month.

A Phobia is a type of Anxiety Disorder that describes an excessive and irrational fear of a specific object, activity, or situation. Phobias are different from common fears in that the anxiety associated with the object or situation is so strong that it interferes with daily life and the ability to function normally. People with phobias may go to great lengths to avoid encountering their feared object or situation.

Potential Causes

Like other brain illnesses, anxiety disorders may be caused by problems in the functioning of brain circuits that regulate fear and other emotions. Studies have shown that severe or long-lasting stress can change the way nerve cells within these circuits transmit information from one region of the brain to another. Other studies have shown that people with certain anxiety disorders have changes in certain brain structures that control memories linked with strong emotions. In addition, studies have shown that anxiety disorders can run in families, which means that they can at least partly be inherited from one or both parents, similar to the genetic risk for heart disease or cancer. Moreover, certain environmental factors — such as a trauma or significant event — may trigger an anxiety disorder in people who have an inherited susceptibility to developing the disorder.

Anxiety disorders can have a long list of potential causes. Each individual case is different, and most anxiety results from an intersection of several different contributors. It’s also important to remember that anxiety is not the result of weakness or personal fault. There is rarely one concrete cause of an Anxiety Disorder – disorders develop from the conjunction of factors like brain chemistry, genetics, environmental contributors, upbringing, and life events. The following factors can put someone at a higher risk of developing an Anxiety Disorder:

Chemical imbalances

Long-lasting stress

Family history of anxiety or other mental health issues


Abuse of biological agents such as alcohol, drugs, or prescription medication

Incidence of other mental health disorders

Side effects of certain medications

It’s time to get help if your anxiety is:

Causing changes in your sleep or appetite

Causing panic attacks or flashbacks of past trauma

Cold or sweaty hands and feet


Dry mouth

Excessive, irrational, or uncontrollable feelings of worry and dread



Heart palpitations

Inability to remain calm

Interfering with your relationships

Leading you to use alcohol or drugs to cope

Making it difficult to concentrate

Making you avoid social situations

Muscle tension


Obsessive thoughts

Prompting you to develop rituals or compulsions to manage your worry

Resulting in restlessness, fatigue, irritability, or muscle tension on a regular basis

Rapid breathing, or hyperventilation

Ritualistic behavior

Sensations of panic and uneasiness for no apparent reason



Trembling or shaking

Trouble sleeping

Trouble concentrating

Hypnotherapy can help you reduce your anxiety by helping you relax!

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