Anxiety disorders

Anxiety symptoms that are frequent or severe enough to disrupt your life can still be successfully treated.

anxiety disorders

By Beverly Merz
Executive Editor, Harvard Women's Health Watch

You've probably had anxiety symptoms—a thumping heart, rapid breathing, and feelings of apprehension and fear. You might have felt anxious before an important event or a major medical procedure. "Some degree of anxiety is normal and even necessary. Anxiety signals us that something is awry or might need our attention. However, you don't want the response to become exaggerated or to dominate your life," says Dr. Ann R. Epstein, medical editor of the Harvard Special Health Report Coping with Anxiety and Stress Disorders. If you often feel anxious without an apparent cause, you may have an anxiety disorder.

Anxiety symptoms

Anxiety disorders are a spectrum of related conditions with similar biological origins. While each disorder has its own set of anxiety symptoms, many anxiety symptoms overlap. Some of the most common anxiety symptoms include

  • irrational feelings of fear, dread, or danger
  • tension
  • worry 

  • physical symptoms such as agitation, trembling, nausea, hot or cold flashes, dizziness, shortness of breath, or frequent urination.

The severity of your symptoms and your ability to manage them can help determine whether you are just experiencing everyday anxiety or whether you have an anxiety disorder. If they are interfering with your life, it's time to talk to a mental-health professional.

Types of anxiety disorders

More than half of people with one anxiety disorder also have another. Additionally, people with anxiety disorders frequently have symptoms of depression, too, and vice versa.

Generalized anxiety disorder. Excessively worrying about a variety of things on most days for six months.

Panic disorder. Recurrent panic attacks--sudden waves of intense anxiety, apprehension, fearfulness, or terror, with physical symptoms such as shortness of breath, palpitations, sweating, and chest pains.

Specific phobias. Excessive fear of certain situations or things, such as heights (acrophobia), crowds (agoraphobia), confinement in close quarters (claustrophobia), or spiders (arachnophobia).

Social phobia. Extreme discomfort in social situations, such as performing, public speaking, or even having a conversation with a new acquaintance.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder. Recurrent distressing thoughts (obsessions) and uncontrollable repetitive behaviors (rituals or compulsions) intended to reduce anxiety provoked by those thoughts.

Stress disorders. Anxiety symptoms that last for up to a month following a traumatic experience indicate acute stress disorder. Symptoms that are triggered by a serious or life threatening trauma and last for months or years thereafter signal post-traumatic distress disorder.

Living with anxiety disorders

It's possible to live with a mild anxiety disorder. But when the anxiety is severe enough to interfere with everyday life, treatment is usually the only way to control it. Treatment options include medication, psychotherapy, or both. Without treatment, it's likely that the disorder will worsen or that another anxiety disorder will develop. Treatment is also important for conditions that often accompany anxiety, such as depression and alcohol or drug dependence.