What is Anxiety?

Written By

Helen Kaminski, MSc

Updated:

Fact Checked

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Key insights

  • Anxiety disorders like generalized anxiety, panic attacks, phobias, and social anxiety are the most prevalent mental health issues affecting over 374 million people globally (as of 2023), according to Forbes.
  • Both biological factors, like genetics and brain changes, as well as environmental triggers like trauma, can contribute to anxiety disorder development.
  • A combination of psychotherapy techniques, medications, lifestyle changes, and other novel treatments can help manage anxiety disorders to minimize their life impact.

Anxiety is a normal human sensation that everyone experiences at times. It involves feelings of worry, nervousness, and unease about something with an uncertain outcome

Anxiety acts as an alarm system in our brains that alerts us to potential threats or dangers so that we can take action to protect ourselves.

At moderate levels, anxiety can help motivate us to prepare for tests, work deadlines, speeches, job interviews, and other stressful or important events. 

However, when anxiety becomes excessive, irrational, persistent, and disruptive to daily life, it may indicate an anxiety disorder.

Statistics

  • Anxiety disorders are the most common of the mental health concerns in the United States, affecting around 40 million adults per year.
  • Women are more frequently affected by anxiety disorders compared to men.
  • Onset of anxiety disorders often occurs in childhood or adolescence.
  • Individuals with anxiety disorders have higher rates of co-occurring depression and substance abuse.
  • Untreated anxiety disorders can significantly impair work, relationships, and overall well-being.
  • Effective treatments like therapy and medications are available to help manage anxiety disorders.

Source: National Institute of Mental Health

There are several different types of anxiety disorders, each with their unique symptoms and features:


Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

Generalized anxiety disorder involves chronic, persistent worrying and tension about many different things that are out of proportion to actual risks. Excessive anxiety occurs on most days for at least six months and is difficult to control.

People with GAD often worry about their health, finances, family, careers, or minor matters like chores, car repairs, or being late for appointments.

Physically, GAD sufferers may experience fatigue, irritability, muscle aches, trembling, feeling on edge, difficulty concentrating, and sleep disturbances. GAD typically begins in childhood or adolescence and is more common in women.

Panic Disorder

Panic disorder is characterized by sudden, unexpected panic attacks that can strike repeatedly and without warning.

Panic attacks reach a peak within 10 minutes and symptoms include a rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, dizziness, trembling, sweating, nausea, and a feeling of loss of control or imminent death.

Those with panic disorder live in fear about when their next attack will happen and go out of their way to avoid potential trigger situations.

Specific Phobias

A specific phobia involves an intense, disproportionate, and persistent fear of a specific object or situation that almost always provokes immediate anxiety.

Common phobias include fear of flying, heights, animals, blood, crowded places, and specific medical procedures like getting a shot.

One of the examples of a specific phobia is pantophobia, the fear of everything.

Phobias cause people to avoid their feared situation, even though they realize their fear is irrational. Specific phobias usually develop in childhood and affect more women than men.

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Social Anxiety Disorder

Another name is social phobia; social anxiety disorder involves an intense fear of being scrutinized or judged harshly by others in social situations.

Sufferers experience extreme anxiety around meeting new people, dating, speaking in meetings, eating in public, using public restrooms, going to parties, and other social gatherings.

They become incredibly self-conscious, have trouble developing relationships, and may avoid social situations entirely. Physical symptoms often include blushing, profuse sweating, trembling, and nausea.

Agoraphobia

Agoraphobia involves an intense fear of situations where escape may be difficult or help unavailable.

Typical agoraphobic situations include using public transportation, being in open spaces, standing in line, or being in crowded areas like malls.

People with agoraphobia often have panic attacks in those situations and become very dependent on others as they try to avoid any setting where they feel trapped, helpless, or embarrassed. About one-third of people with panic disorder develop agoraphobia.

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Separation Anxiety Disorder

This disorder involves excessive fear about separation from home or attachment figures. It mainly affects children but can also occur in adults after stressful events.

Children with separation anxiety disorder often have extreme homesickness or school refusal.

They may constantly worry that harm will come to their parents and loved ones when separated. Adults with the disorder may resist being away from loved ones and have nightmares about separation.

Illness Anxiety Disorder

Also known as hypochondriasis, people with illness anxiety disorder obsessively worry about having or developing serious medical illnesses even though diagnostic tests show there is nothing wrong with their health.

They misinterpret normal bodily sensations as symptoms of a dangerous health problem.

The excessive health worry causes persistent stress and disability.


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Risk Factors for Anxiety Disorders

  • Genetics – Anxiety disorders run in families, with genetic factors accounting for 30-50% of risk.
  • Sex – Anxiety disorders are roughly twice as common in women as men. The reason for this is still unclear.
  • Trauma – Stressful or traumatic life events in childhood or as an adult can trigger anxiety disorders in some people.
  • Medical conditions – Some illnesses like hyperthyroidism are linked to higher anxiety risk.
  • Substance use – Drugs like cocaine or heavy alcohol use can produce or worsen anxiety. Withdrawal from certain substances can also provoke anxiety.
  • Personality traits – Research shows that personality traits like neuroticism or behavioral inhibition are associated with anxiety disorders.

Causes of Anxiety Disorders

The exact causes of anxiety disorders are still not fully understood, but likely involve a complex interplay of biological and environmental factors:

  • Brain chemistry – Certain neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) play a key role in regulating anxiety levels and may be out of balance in anxiety disorders.
  • Brain structure – Some studies reveal subtle differences in brain structure and activity in people with anxiety disorders. Key brain regions like the amygdala and prefrontal cortex may function abnormally.
  • Inflammation – An overactive immune system response producing inflammation in the body may contribute to excessive anxiety and worries.
  • Altered microbiome – There is emerging evidence that bacteria, viruses, and fungi that usually inhabit the gut can affect anxiety levels through mechanisms like producing neurotransmitters.
  • Childhood adversity – Traumatic experiences in early life like abuse, neglect, loss of parents, or growing up in poverty may elevate anxiety disorder risk later on.
  • Stress response – Anxiety disorders may stem from an overly sensitive fight-or-flight stress response system that perceives threats too readily.

In summary, anxiety refers to a normal emotion experienced by all humans at times. However, when feelings of fear, dread and uneasiness become chronic, excessive and disruptive to daily functioning, a person may have an anxiety disorder. 

Several different anxiety disorders cause significant distress and impairment in life. Anxiety disorders likely arise from a combination of genetic vulnerabilities and environmental triggers like trauma or stress. 

Understanding the factors underlying pathological anxiety is an important step in developing more effective treatments. With continued research, we can gain more insight into anxiety and improve care for the millions of people worldwide disabled by anxiety disorders.

Treating Anxiety Disorders

Since anxiety disorders are among the most common mental health conditions, many treatment options have been developed to help people manage symptoms and improve their quality of life.

The most effective treatments for anxiety disorders include psychotherapy, medications, or a combination of both.

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the mainstays of therapy for anxiety. This aids patients in identifying and changing negative thought patterns that fuel anxiety. 
  • CBT also teaches coping techniques like exposure therapy, which gradually exposes the person to their fears in a controlled, safe way to overcome them. 
  • Support groups can also benefit people with anxiety disorders, providing a judgment-free space to share experiences and advice.
  • Medications frequently used to treat anxiety include certain antidepressants like SSRIs and SNRIs, which boost serotonin levels and have anti-anxiety effects. 
  • Benzodiazepines are fast-acting anti-anxiety drugs that work by enhancing GABA activity, but they carry a risk of dependence and are usually only prescribed short-term.
  • Beta-blockers reduce physical anxiety symptoms like rapid heart rate and tremors by blocking adrenaline’s effects. All medications have potential side effects, so work closely with a doctor to find the right regimen.

Lifestyle adjustments can also make a big difference in managing anxiety. Reducing alcohol and caffeine intake, exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, practicing relaxation techniques like meditation or yoga, eating a nutritious diet, and avoiding smoking can all help lower anxiety levels naturally.

Some patients find supplements like valerian, chamomile, lavender, or magnesium may take the edge off anxiety symptoms. Always check with a doctor before starting any new supplements.

For patients with treatment-resistant anxiety that fails to respond to standard therapies, newer interventions are being explored.

Limited research shows some potential for certain psychedelic-assisted therapies, vagus nerve stimulation, neurofeedback training, and deep brain stimulation, but more studies are needed on these novel approaches.

Seeking help for anxiety from mental health professionals and sticking with the treatment plan is crucial. Left untreated, anxiety disorders tend to worsen over time and can negatively impact work performance, relationships, and overall health. 

With appropriate management, people with anxiety disorders can feel dramatically better and regain control over their lives.

Recent years have brought an expanded understanding of anxiety’s causes and more options for addressing it effectively. The future promises to improve the detection and treatment of these common mental health challenges.

Significant data-related challenges in dealing with anxiety globally

When it comes to managing anxiety, we’re still facing some big data hurdles globally. From limited screening tools in poorer regions to siloed research efforts, we’ve got work to do to improve data collection and sharing across borders and disciplines.

Tackling biases, data concerns, lack of physiological markers – these are crucial steps for developing better treatments tailored to diverse populations.

By addressing current data gaps head-on, cooperating openly, and thinking outside academic and healthcare boxes, we can gain key insights into anxiety.

And that will get us closer to reducing its burden worldwide. But right now, our anxiety data is far from perfect. We’ve got challenges to overcome.

  • Lack of standardized data collection on anxiety prevalence across countries
  • Underreporting of anxiety due to stigma
  • Biased sampling in anxiety research focusing more on developed countries
  • Limited access to digital tools for anxiety screening in low-income regions
  • Difficulty aggregating data across academic silos and healthcare systems
  • Scarce biomarkers and objective physiological data linked to anxiety
  • Lack of longitudinal data tracking long-term anxiety outcomes
  • Limited data on the effectiveness of anxiety interventions across diverse populations
  • Lack of open access to anonymized anxiety data for broader research

The Role of Technology in Anxiety Disorders

Technology has brought many benefits but also potential drawbacks when it comes to mental health. For people struggling with anxiety disorders, new technologies and media can be a double-edged sword.

On the positive side, technology now allows greater access to mental health education resources and treatments. 

The internet has made high-quality information about anxiety disorders available at one’s fingertips. Online screening tools can help people identify potential anxiety problems and connect them with treatment providers. 

Teletherapy via video chat has expanded access to therapy for anxiety, especially helpful for those in remote areas or with mobility challenges.

Smartphone apps and virtual reality programs leverage technology to help users practice coping skills and face fears from the comfort of home. Support groups and social networks for anxiety exist online, reducing isolation.

However, technology overuse has also been linked to increased anxiety in some individuals. Constant connectivity can heighten conflict and reinforce negative thinking patterns. Fear of missing out and comparing oneself to idealized online images may undermine self-esteem. Cyberbullying can contribute to social anxiety.

Excessive social media use stimulates dopamine pathways in the brain associated with anxiety and addiction. Blue light from screens may disrupt circadian rhythms and sleep quality, worsening anxiety.

Finding a healthy balance is critical. While online resources can complement anxiety treatment, they should not replace face-to-face therapy and real-world interactions. 

Technology can augment social connections but not substitute for them. raison d’être, not escape from life. Mindfulness about technology use is important for those with anxiety disorders.

Cultural Views on Anxiety

The cultural background shapes attitudes toward mental illness, including anxiety disorders. In individualistic Western cultures like the U.S., anxiety is medicalized and destigmatized more than in collectivist cultures.

Many Asian cultures view mental illness as a family matter laden with shame. Religious beliefs also influence cultural perceptions of anxiety. 

Some faiths interpret excessive worry as reflecting weak faith. However, no culture is homogenous. The stigma around anxiety persists in the West. Globalization and immigration drive the cultural exchange of ideas about anxiety worldwide.

Culture also affects the expression of anxiety symptoms. For example, somatization, when emotional distress manifests physically as headaches or back pain, is more common in China. Latent anxiety presents more as irritability or interpersonal difficulties in Japan. 

Understanding cultural variation in anxiety experiences is critical for providers to offer culturally-adaptive treatment.

Cultural competence training helps clinicians avoid ethnic/racial biases and appreciate patients’ cultural backgrounds when addressing anxiety issues. 

Overall, while cultures differ in anxiety perceptions, biological factors underlying anxiety disorders cross cultural boundaries. Reducing stigma and tailoring treatment sensitively benefits diverse patients globally.

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💡 Note: While BetterHelp doesn’t accept insurance or prescribe medication, if you have insurance or require medication, we recommend connecting with a local therapist on Talkspace.com (currently offering $80 off).


Anxiety’s Impact on Relationships

Since anxiety disorders profoundly impact mood and behavior, they also affect relationships with friends, family, and romantic partners. Relationship stress can worsen anxiety, while close supportive relationships can alleviate anxiety. 

Unfortunately, anxiety can strain bonds. Misunderstandings arise when loved ones struggle to comprehend the insidious nature of anxiety.

Partners may feel hurt by social avoidance, irritability, and perceived disinterest. However, relationships can also be strengthened by learning about anxiety, setting healthy boundaries, communicating needs, seeking counseling, and fostering intimacy. 

Professional help guides those with anxiety on balancing self-care with nurturing relationships. With effort and education, anxiety disorders need not define or destroy relationships.

In summary, this examination of anxiety – what it is, its types, causes, treatments, and impact on modern life – provides a broad overview of this prevalent mental health challenge.

  • As research continues unraveling anxiety’s biological mechanisms and sociocultural underpinnings, improved therapies and management strategies will undoubtedly emerge.
  • But enhancing awareness and compassion for those experiencing anxiety remains paramount. 

Recognizing common humanity beneath the superficial differences between a disordered anxiety condition versus normal worries allows us to offer meaningful support to the many individuals worldwide struggling with anxiety.

Free or low-cost mental health resources in the US

For those dealing with mental health issues or emotional struggles, various resources exist to provide support and care. Individuals concerned about their psychological well-being or that of loved ones can use these services to find help.

  • Help for mental illness (NIH)Find help.
  • SAMHSAEmergency, crisis, and disaster helplines.
  • SAMHSA’s National Helpline: 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
  • NAMI HelpLine: 800-950-6264
  • Eldercare Locator: 1-800-677-1116
  • Alzheimer’s Association Helpline: 1-800-272-3900
  • Local public health departments offer mental health services like counseling and therapy to treat depression.
  • Community mental health centers are local resources that provide support for managing depression.
  • For a list of international support lines, visit our crisis helpline directory.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What are the most common symptoms of an anxiety disorder?

The most common symptoms are excessive worrying and tension, feeling agitated or on edge, irritability, restlessness, muscle tension, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, sleep disturbances, and rapid heart rate and breathing.

How are anxiety disorders diagnosed?

A mental health professional diagnoses anxiety disorders through a clinical evaluation of reported symptoms, discussion of thoughts/behaviors, medical history examination, and use of diagnostic criteria from the DSM-5 reference manual. There are no definitive lab tests for anxiety disorders.

What natural remedies help with anxiety?

Some natural remedies that may help alleviate anxiety include exercise, meditation, yoga, limiting caffeine/alcohol, getting enough sleep, eating a healthy diet, and trying supplements like magnesium or chamomile, but check with a doctor first.

Can anxiety disorders be cured?

There is no known “cure” for anxiety disorders, but with proper ongoing treatment like therapy and lifestyle changes, symptoms can be well-managed in most people to minimize the negative life impact. Some may recover fully over time, while others need long-term management.


References

How to cope with anxiety | TEDxUHasselt

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About the author

Helen Kaminski, MSc

Helen Kaminski, MSc

Mindful living for a happier, healthier you. I’m a writer and mental health advocate in Warsaw, Poland, with five years working as a therapist. I hold a psychology degree from the University of Warsaw. I specialize in writing about mental health, using my experiences and academic background to educate and inspire others. In my free time, I volunteer at a Disability Learning Center and go for nature walks. My writing aims to break down mental health stigma and help others feel understood. Social

2 thoughts on “What is Anxiety?”

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