Everyone experiences anxiety from time to time as a result of a situation that we perceive as threatening, such as having to do an oral presentation, having a near-miss with a car, or waiting for the results of a lab test.
Some level of anxiety can even be helpful. Anxiety can help people deal with a threatening situation, study harder for an exam, and perform better in sports. Anxiety is not necessarily harmful and usually only lasts a short period of time.
But when anxiety becomes persistent and interferes with the ability to cope and disrupts daily life, the person may have an anxiety disorder. There are several types of anxiety disorders. They include:
- panic attack or panic disorder (sudden anxiety that occurs without warning) with or without agoraphobia (avoiding specific situations that trigger anxiety or enduring them with great distress)
- specific phobias (many types of intense fear reactions of specific objects or situations, such as fear of spiders, flying, or heights)
- social anxiety or social phobia (fear of being embarrassed in social situations)
- generalized anxiety disorder (general feeling of anxiety most of the time)
- obsessive-compulsive disorder (unwanted thoughts or behaviors that are repetitive and unnecessary)
- post-traumatic stress disorder (anxiety associated with and occurring after a stressful life event)
Anxiety disorders often occur together with other medical conditions, such as depression, eating disorders, or substance use problems.
Anxiety disorders are the most common of all mental disorders. About 1 out of every 4 adults has an anxiety disorder sometime in their life and about 1 out of every 10 people currently has an anxiety disorder. They are more common in women and can affect children and adults.
Many people misunderstand these disorders and think they can get over them on their own (i.e., without treatment). This is usually not the case. Fortunately, there are many treatments available today to help.
Although researchers don't know exactly why some people experience anxiety disorders, they do know that there are various factors involved. Like many other mental health conditions, anxiety disorders seem to be a result of a combination of biological, psychological, and other individual factors.
How we think and react to certain situations can affect anxiety. Some people may perceive certain situations to be more dangerous than they actually are (e.g., fear of flying). Others may have had a bad experience and they fear this will happen again (e.g., a dog bite). Some psychologists believe that childhood experiences can also contribute to anxiety.
Researchers know that problems with brain chemistry can contribute to the development of anxiety disorders. Certain neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) in the brain involved in anxiety include serotonin, norepinephrine, and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). Researchers have also shown that changes in activity in certain areas of the brain are involved in anxiety. Many anxiety disorders run in families and likely have a genetic cause.
Certain medical conditions such as anemia and thyroid problems can also cause symptoms of anxiety. As well, other factors such as caffeine, alcohol, and certain medications can cause anxiety symptoms.
Traumatic life events such as the death of a family member, witnessing a death, war, and natural disasters such as hurricanes and earthquakes may trigger anxiety disorders.