People use the word “anxiety” to mean a lot of different things.
First, anxiety is an emotion. We all have anxiety from time to time. When we feel anxious, our heart beats a little faster, we sweat a little more, and we obsess over things we’re afraid might happen. We feel uneasy or worried. A lot of the time, we don’t even know what we’re anxious about.
Everybody feels anxious sometimes. Like all our emotions, anxiety is there to protect us. It tells us what we’re worried about and reminds us to do what we can to keep something bad from happening.
But for some people, anxiety becomes a problem. They may start to feel anxious most of the time. It can keep them from functioning at school or at work. It can make people paranoid and make it hard to connect with others. Sometimes anxiety can get so intense, it feels like we’re having a heart attack. These are all signs of different types of anxiety disorders.
Let’s look at some of the most common types of anxiety disorders:
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
This is the most common anxiety disorder. It’s what most people think about when they think about “having anxiety” as a mental health concern.
People with GAD tend to feel anxious most days, if not every day. They may feel frightened, distressed, and uneasy for no apparent reason. When there is a reason, they may feel a lot more anxious than most people would in the same situation.
For someone with GAD, there may be certain triggers that make them especially anxious, like meeting new people, taking a test, or traveling. But the anxiety isn’t limited to just one type of situation. If there’s nothing to feel anxious about, it can seem like your brain is just going to go out and find something to worry about.
Social anxiety disorder
Social anxiety is also very common—but unlike GAD, it mainly shows up in one type of situation: it’s all about how you react in social settings.
Having social anxiety isn’t the same as being shy or introverted. Some people just prefer having more alone time, but don’t necessarily feel threatened by social situations. Other people can seem really outgoing, but be shaking on the inside. Many people with social anxiety crave connection with other people, but have a hard time putting themselves out there.
You might have social anxiety if you avoid spending time with even your close friends, or if you can’t meet strangers without having a few drinks to take the edge off.
A phobia is a fear of a specific thing or situation. Fear of heights is a common phobia. People who are afraid of heights don’t necessarily feel a lot of anxiety in other situations.
Some phobias are so common, they have their own names. You may have heard of arachnophobia (fear of spiders) or claustrophobia (fear of suffocating in a tight space).
A phobia becomes a mental health problem when it interferes with your life or goes beyond what’s reasonable and expected. For example: Most people are at least a little bit afraid of sharks. That’s pretty reasonable. Even though shark attacks are very rare, most people would stay out of the water if they saw a shark at the beach. But if you’re too scared to even go near a body of water just in case there might be a shark in it, that could be a sign of a shark phobia.
People with anxiety disorders may experience panic attacks. Their heart rate suddenly skyrockets, they have trouble breathing, and they may even think they’re dying. Sometimes there’s a trigger, but they can also happen seemingly out of nowhere. Panic attacks are scary—but you can learn to manage them by taking deep, slow breaths or taking medication.
If you experience panic attacks but no other symptoms of an anxiety disorder, that’s called panic disorder.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
PTSD is like an extreme “anxiety reflex” that develops after one or more traumatic incidents. People with PTSD often experience panic attacks and flashbacks. They may go out of their way to avoid things that remind them of the incident.
We often think of PTSD as something that veterans experience, but anyone can get PTSD.
PTSD can develop after a single incident, like a car accident, natural disaster, or being assaulted physically or sexually. It can be the result of chronic, ongoing trauma (such as neglect or abuse). This second type is often called complex PTSD (C-PTSD).
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
Sometimes people throw around the word “OCD” to describe someone who is a perfectionist or likes to keep things clean and organized. In reality, OCD is a really debilitating mental health condition.
People with OCD experience obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are distressing thoughts that won’t go away. Compulsions are behaviors or “rituals” that help manage the anxiety caused by the obsession. A common example is thinking “I left the door unlocked, and someone is going to break in” and then getting up out of bed several times during the night to check the lock.
Compulsive behaviors like this can easily take over your life and get in the way of other things. Sometimes people who are afraid of contamination can wash their hands so often that their skin becomes raw.
Anxiety disorders are treatable
Dealing with an anxiety disorder can be tough—but there is hope! Anxiety disorders are treatable. The treatments are actually similar for most different types of anxiety disorders. Therapy can help you learn to manage the anxiety and face your fears. Anxiety medications are also helpful for many people. Lifestyle changes can also help, like practicing mindfulness.
If you think you might have an anxiety disorder, take our free and confidential anxiety test. You can use it to start a conversation with a doctor or a therapist.
- American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: Author.
- American Psychiatric Association. What are Anxiety Disorders? Retrieved from https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/anxiety-disorders/what-are-anxiety-disorders
Note: Although PTSD and OCD are no longer classified as “anxiety disorders” in the DSM-V, we still include them here. Most people still think of these conditions as a type of anxiety, or closely related to anxiety.