Occasional anxiety is a normal part of life. But anxiety that is persistent, overwhelming, or irrational may signal the presence of an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders are medical conditions that interfere with daily life. They include generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorder and panic attacks, agoraphobia, social anxiety disorder, separation anxiety, specific phobias. and selective mutism.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are closely related to anxiety disorders and may also involve depression. Anxiety can also be related to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which manifests as abdominal pain, cramping, constipation, and diarrhea.
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is characterized by chronic anxiety and worry, even when there is nothing to justify it. People with GAD are excessively anxious and worried most of the time. They may feel restless and on-edge, have difficulty concentrating or will lose their train of thought easily, can be irritable, may have problems falling asleep or staying asleep. People with GAD feel significant free-floating anxiety and fear around work, relationships, and other areas of life. Their anxiety is such that it interferes with normal functioning.
People with social anxiety disorder have an intense fear of being judged by others in social situations. They often avoid social situations because they are concerned about the negative opinions of others. Social anxiety disorder can make it difficult to function at school and in the workplace. It can affect people of all ages. Children may have a very limited understanding of their social anxiety, even though it is pervasive. Social anxiety can be generalized, or present across any social situation. It can also be specific, or limited to certain circumstances such as eating in public, talking to authority figures, or using public restrooms.
Many people have specific phobias, such as a fear of spiders or of seeing blood. Adults with specific phobias usually understand their fear is ill-founded but they avoid the feared stimulus anyway. Phobias are treated when they interfere with an individual's daily life. For example, a businessperson with a fear of flying may need to overcome that particular phobia in order to do her job.
Separation anxiety can occur in adults, teens, and children but is most common in children. The anxiety level at being separated from a person or environment is much greater is normal. Children with separation anxiety may refuse to go to school or may worry obsessively about something happening to a loved one. They may have trouble sleeping alone or may have repeated headaches or stomachaches without a physical cause. Children with separation anxiety may not be able to verbalize their fears so it is important to obtain a diagnosis from a qualified psychiatrist.
Selective mutism is a relatively rare anxiety disorder in which an individual refuses to speak in certain situations, such as in class or with friends. Selective mutism is diagnosed only if there are no other explanations, such as embarrassment at a speech impediment or a lack of fluency in the language.
People with panic disorder have inexplicable attacks of severe anxiety that can create symptoms resembling a heart attack. Individuals with panic disorder may experience heart palpitations, sweating, trembling and shaking, shortness of breath, and a feeling of impending doom. Sometimes, panic attacks are preceded by stressors or triggers. People with panic disorder may try to avoid triggers, which can lead to the development of agoraphobia.
Agoraphobia is the fear of being in a situation where panic attacks might occur. People with agoraphobia display at least two of the following fears: a fear of driving or using public transport, a fear of being in open spaces like parking lots or on bridges, a fear of crowded places, a fear of enclosed spaces such as a store; a fear of being outside the home alone.
Drugs (both prescribed and street) can be related to panic-like symptoms either during use or up to one month after cessation of use.
OCD is characterized by obsessive thoughts that trigger compulsive behaviors. For example, worrying about staying clean can trigger repeated hand-washing or bathing. These behaviors temporarily relieve the anxiety associated with the obsessive thoughts. Having a few idiosyncrasies does not warrant a diagnosis of OCD. Instead, OCD is a debilitating condition that interferes with normal life.
Exposure to a traumatic event can trigger recurrent memories, distressing dreams, flashbacks, and negative physiological responses or psychological stress displayed as anger, guilt, or shame. The traumatic event can be experienced directly or it can be an event that happened to a loved one. PTSD is a complex disorder but it almost always involves feelings of anxiety in response to re-experiencing memories or emotions connected to the trauma.