Anxiety Disorders: More Than Feeling Anxious

Published January 1, 2022

reflection of someone sad looking into the reflection

Everyone experiences anxiety at some point in their lives — it’s a completely normal part of life. But for people with anxiety disorders, it’s often more than just a passing feeling in response to a tense situation.

What is an anxiety disorder?

Anxiety disorders are a group of mental illnesses that cause constant and overwhelming anxiety and fear. Patients suffering from an anxiety disorder may experience intense, excessive, and persistent worry and fear about everyday situations that may not even register as stressful for someone else. This excessive anxiety can cause people to avoid work, school, family get-togethers, and other triggering situations.

These conditions can have a profound impact on patients’ overall well-being and ability to function. People with an anxiety disorder are 3 to 5 times more likely to go to the doctor and 6 times more likely to be hospitalized for psychiatric disorders than those who don’t suffer from anxiety disorders.

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting 40 million adults every year. While anxiety disorders are highly treatable through interventions like talk therapy and medications, only a small amount of those suffering from anxiety receive treatment.

Types of anxiety disorders.

There are five main types of anxiety disorders:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) affects 6.8 million Americans, but less than half of patients with this condition receive treatment. GAD is characterized by persistent and excessive worry about a number of different things, even when there is little or no reason to worry about them. People with GAD find it difficult to control their anxiety and stay focused on tasks. To make matters more difficult, GAD often occurs alongside major depression.
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), which impacts only 1% of the U.S. population, is characterized by recurrent, unwanted thoughts (obsessions), along with repetitive behaviors (compulsions) like hand-washing, counting, checking, or cleaning. Not performing these so-called “rituals” can increase anxiety.
  • Panic disorder is characterized by unexpected and repeated episodes of intense fear, accompanied by physical symptoms like chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, dizziness, or abdominal distress.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can develop after exposure to a terrifying event or ordeal in which grave physical harm occurred or was threatened. Traumatic events that may trigger PTSD include violent personal assaults, natural or human-caused disasters, accidents, or military combat.
  • Social anxiety disorder affects 15 million U.S. adults. This condition is characterized by feeling overwhelming worry and self-consciousness about everyday social situations. Patients with social anxiety disorder may experience intrusive thoughts about whether they’re being judged by others or worry obsessively about being embarrassed or ridiculed. It can be limited to only one type of situation, or be so severe that a person experiences symptoms almost anytime they are around other people.

Other common types of anxiety include specific phobias (like arachnophobia – or fear of spiders) and separation anxiety, where someone feels scared or anxious when a loved one leaves.

What are the symptoms of anxiety?

Anxiety is a tricky condition because it can have a wide variety of symptoms. Some of these symptoms are easier to identify (like feeling nervous or fearful) but other symptoms — especially the physical ones — can be misleading if you don’t know what to look for.

Common symptoms of anxiety include:

  • Feeling nervous, restless, irritable, or tense
  • Having a sense of impending danger, panic or doom
  • Having an increased heart rate
  • Breathing rapidly (hyperventilation)
  • Sweating
  • Trembling
  • Feeling weak or tired
  • Trouble concentrating or thinking about anything other than the present worry
  • Having trouble sleeping
  • Experiencing gastrointestinal (GI) problems
  • Having difficulty controlling worry
  • Having the urge to avoid things that trigger anxiety

Why do anxiety disorders develop?

Everyone experiences anxiety, but not everyone develops an anxiety disorder. While some people attribute this to personal strength, the simple truth is that it’s not that simple.

The causes of anxiety disorders aren’t fully understood, but we do know that life experiences such as traumatic events appear to trigger anxiety disorders in people who are already prone to anxiety. Some research suggests anxiety disorders may be linked to faulty circuits in the brain that control fear and emotions.

Some of the risk factors for developing anxiety include:

  • Childhood shyness: Shyness and withdrawal from unfamiliar people and places during childhood is linked to social anxiety in teens and adults.
  • Drug withdrawal or misuse: Anxiety disorder often goes hand-in-hand with alcohol and substance use. Some people also use drugs to hide or reduce their anxiety symptoms.
  • Genetics: Anxiety disorders often run in families.
  • Low self-esteem: Negative self-image may lead to social anxiety disorder.
  • Medical conditions: Some heart, lung, and thyroid conditions can cause symptoms similar to anxiety disorders or make anxiety symptoms worse. It’s crucial to work with a primary care provider to rule out other medical conditions that may look like anxiety. Severe illness and chronic health conditions can also cause patients to feel overwhelmed or anxious.
  • Personal history of other mental illnesses: Having another mental health condition increases the chances of developing an anxiety disorder.
  • Sex: Most anxiety disorders occur more commonly in women than in men, with some being twice as likely to impact women.
  • Trauma or negative life events: Life events that are often linked to anxiety disorders include childhood abuse and neglect, the death of a loved one, being attacked, or witnessing violence.

While there's no way to predict exactly what will cause someone to develop an anxiety disorder, patients can take steps to reduce the impact of symptoms by getting help early, staying active, and avoiding alcohol or drug use.

How are anxiety disorders diagnosed and treated?

While there’s not a lab test to specifically diagnose anxiety disorders, they can still be diagnosed and treated. For patients feeling inexplicably anxious or irritable or are having trouble focusing, a primary care provider is a great first stop to rule out potential ties to a physical health condition. They can also often diagnose and prescribe medications to manage mild anxiety disorders.

For more severe anxiety symptoms, patients may need to visit a mental health specialist for counseling or medication management. The diagnostic process may include a psychological evaluation to discuss their thoughts, feelings, and behavior.

Anxiety disorders are typically treated with medication (such as antidepressants), psychotherapy, or a combination of both. Patients seeking treatment for anxiety should discuss their options with their care provider to determine the best approach for them.

Let’s get you less stressed.

Due to stigma and other barriers, more than half of people with mental illness do not seek help for their disorders, and anxiety is no exception. At Firefly, we believe that mental illness is no different than any other medical illness. That’s why we integrate behavioral health support directly into our primary care model. From medications to supporting changes to your habits and lifestyle, we're here to help you work towards a full recovery.

If you have symptoms of an anxiety disorder, consult with your care team today through the Firefly app. Not a member yet? Get started by signing up on our website or giving us a call at (855) 869-9284.