A Guide to Anxiety Disorders

Stress is normal. The anxiety related to everyday stress pushes you to deal with the situation causing that stress. It is a defense mechanism keeping us from danger. When that anxiety becomes irrational or disabling, then it becomes an anxiety disorder. One in four adults suffer from mental disorders, one in 17 from serious mental illness, nearly half qualify for two or more illnesses. It is the leading cause of disability in the United States and Canada. However, it is also very treatable.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

Intense, unwarranted, chronic worry and anxiety that keeps you from your activities of everyday living may be generalized anxiety disorder. Over three percent of American adults, age 18 or over, may have GAD at any time. The usual onset is around 31 years old, but it can manifest itself anytime in your life.

Symptoms include chronic worrying and irritability or tension that makes you restless, muscular tension, insomnia, headaches, and avoidance of situations or people. Three to six months of excessive worry and worry that is more intense than situations warrant, is required for diagnosis. Biofeedback can help control muscular tension, while cognitive behavior therapy and medication, alone or together, are effective treatments.

  • What is GAD?: Concerns and worries that are unshakable may be generalized anxiety disorder.
  • Fact Sheet: GAD's symptoms, formal diagnosis, and treatment options.
  • Women and GAD: Geared toward women's generalized anxiety issues, plus resources.
  • Normal Worry? Learn the difference between worry and generalized anxiety disorder.
  • Children and GAD: Children worry, but when it affects their lives as kids, then it might be an anxiety disorder.
  • Screen Yourself: Take this online test from the Anxiety Disorders Association of America.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Hoarding, pulling out your hair, impulsive stealing, pathological lying, gambling, and washing hands until they are raw are all symptomatic of obsessive-compulsive disorder or OCD. About one percent of the population or 2.2 million American adults have this disorder. The median age for onset is 19, although symptoms often appear in childhood or adolescence.

  • Do I have OCD? Take this screening quiz. Not designed for diagnosis, but as a tool to let you know if there's a potential problem.

Panic Disorder

Terror striking without warning leaving your heart pounding, with symptoms resembling a heart attack, or that you are out of control, are characteristic of panic disorder. Diagnosis is made after four attacks in a month, followed by 30 or more days of unflinching fear that another attack will happen and at least four symptoms during one or more of the attacks. Most panic attacks pass quickly, just after a few minutes, but rarely last an hour. They can happen any time of the day, even in your sleep.

Treatment consists of therapy, medication, or both to manage symptoms. It takes about two months of treatment for 70 to 90 percent of panic attack sufferers to learn to manage those attacks. The median onset age is 24 and nearly three percent of six million American adults suffer with panic disorder.

  • Panic Attacks: A sudden fear that incapacitates you, may even make you ill.
  • Panic Attack Test: Have you been experiencing panic attacks? Take this screening test and discover whether you need to see a doctor.
  • Panic Disorder: The National Institutite of Mental Health's Guide to Panic Disorders.


Irrational fears that make you avoid specific items, places, or situations are called phobias. Most phobias are mild, requiring cognitive therapy to desensitize and teach patients to recognize and manage symptoms. Anti-anxiety medications also relieve symptoms, sometimes combined with cognitive therapy. Specifically avoiding objects or situations is called specific phobia. Nearly nine percent of the adult population, nearly 20 million people, go out of their way to avoid something due to persistent, marked fear.

  • The Phobia List: From ablutophobia, the fear of washing or bathing to zoophobia, the fear of animals.
  • Phobias for Kids: Explains the differences between a normal fear and a fear that won't go away.
  • Diagnosis: There is no test available to diagnose a phobia. Doctors must go by patient experience.
  • Agoraphobia: Not simply a fear of leaving the house, but a fear of something happening that you cannot escape when you are having a panic attack, keeps you avoiding those situations.

Social Anxiety

One common phobia is social phobia, which usually begins around age 13 or earlier. About 7 percent of adults have a social phobia. That's over 15 million Americans at any given time. Agoraphobia and specific phobia fall under the social phobia category. Many types of anxiety disorders may fall into multiple categories as many characteristics are similar or the same.

  • Social Anxiety Facts: Causes, impact on quality of life, what it feels like to have the disorder, and personal experience audio segments.
  • Social Phobia and Social Anxiety: When your social interactions cause physical and mental anxiety, those with the disorder do more than simply shy away, they shut themselves out of life.
  • Self Test: Take this preliminary questionnaire to see if your symptoms fall under the category of social anxiety.
  • Separation Anxiety: Not being able to separate from the security of a loved one is separation anxiety.
  • Alcohol: What role does alcohol play in social anxiety disorder?

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Witnessing, experiencing, or participating in traumatic events can cause such psychological damage that a person withdraws from intimate relationships, can't hold a job, even go to school. If the event was life threatening, such as violent crime, war, or natural disaster, the damage can be especially severe. PTSD affects both children and adults. Symptoms include persistent reliving of events and anxiety, emotional numbness, nightmares, difficulty concentrating, sleeping, and being startled easily, sometimes with violent reactions.

PTSD is confirmed when the disorder persists for at least three months. The loss of a person's sense of control is characteristic of PTSD. Psychotherapy, medications, cognitive behavior therapy, alone or in tandem, are used to treat the disorder. The median age of PTSD is 23, although severe trauma can cause the disorder in children and adults of any age. About eight million American adults have PTSD. Nearly one-fifth of all Vietnam war veterans experienced PTSD at some point after the war, and today's veterans are experiencing elevated cases of post-traumatic stress disorder, called the "Gulf War Syndrome."

  • Gulf War Syndrome: Physical and mental symptoms emanating from service in the Gulf Wars.
  • National Center for PTSD: Aids U.S. veterans and others affected by post-traumatic stress by providing educational information through research and training.
  • Complex PTSD: The accumulation of non-threatening traumatic events as opposed to one life-threatening traumatic event.
  • Differences in Trauma and PTSD: Chronic trauma, sexual abuse, being a prisoner-of-war, prostitute, being subject to long-term domestic violence for months or years in the total control of another person is Complex PTSD.

More Anxiety Information:

  • Anxiety Symptoms: Listing of various anxiety symptoms as reported by anxiety sufferers.
  • Worry Wise Kids: Do your children feel that the weight of the world is on them?
  • Terrorism and Anxiety: It's a frightening world of terror for both adults and children, especially if one parent is fighting during a war.
  • Depression and Anxiety: Depression and anxiety seem similar on the surface, but the two disorders are very different.
  • Glossary: Depression and anxiety glossary from Johns Hopkins.
  • Anxiety Disorders in Children: Significantly underreported and undiagnosed, while one-quarter of adults have an anxiety disorder sometime in their lifetime.

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