What Are the Types of Anxiety Disorders?

The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that slightly more than 18 percent of adults in America suffer with an anxiety disorder. Most people naturally feel tense and anxious when confronted with a threat, whether actual or imagined. The stress response prepares the body for action—fight-or-flight—and protects us from blindly stumbling into dangerous situations. It is usually a temporary response, triggered by hormones, that lifts once the threat has passed. Anxiety becomes a disorder when it is persistent, keeping the body in a continual state of arousal that interferes with daily functioning. The American Psychiatric Association identifies several types of anxiety disorders:

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)

This is Murphy’s Law — “anything that can go wrong, will go wrong” —  in hyperdrive. People that worry excessively and anticipate disaster when no apparent threat exists are diagnosed as having generalized anxiety disorder. Women, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, are twice as likely as men to suffer from GAD. Concerns about finances, health, family and careers may cycle out of control even when the worrier recognizes such intense anxiety is unwarranted. Causes are unknown, although a combination of genetics and life experiences are thought to produce GAD symptoms. The disorder may have its beginnings in childhood and gradually grow until it makes daily functioning difficult for the sufferer.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)

How many times do you check that the oven is off before you leave the house? For most people, the answer would be never. They trust that they turned off the oven after they last used it. For someone suffering from OCD, the answer may be different. OCD is characterized by intrusive, uninvited fearful thoughts that trigger compulsive behavior.

In the oven-checking example, the fear of a house fire may drive someone with OCD to feel extreme anxiety that can only be relieved by performing a reassuring ritual, such as repeatedly checking the stove to ensure it is off. The performance of rituals, repeated hand-washing or seemingly superstition-based “rules,” such as requiring objects to be placed in a particular arrangement or repeating a mantra, are hallmarks of OCD.

Some OCD sufferers deal with their fears by avoiding situations. For example, someone with an unreasonable fear of cancer may avoid being around someone who has the disease. These compulsions can interfere with daily functioning. While everyone experiences unwanted thoughts, most people are not driven to act out in response to them. Researchers are unsure why certain people develop the disorder, although some suggest people who develop OCD have extremely high standards and are unable to disregard unpleasant thoughts.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

PTSD is most often associated with combat veterans. The trauma of battle remains in the memory and can rear-up in flashbacks and nightmares. However, you don’t need to have war experiences to suffer from PTSD. Any trauma that has exposed you to a threat of serious injury, death or sexual violation can produce debilitating after effects. Witnessing traumatic events can also lead to PTSD. It is a hazard for first responders who must deal with the aftermath of violence and death.

Symptoms include spontaneous recalling of the traumatic event, sometimes triggered by an environmental cue. For example, a car backfiring may bring on memories of a shooting. Reccurring nightmares that are related to the event, and physical reactions to people and objects that bring the trauma to mind, indicate PTSD. Symptoms may begin immediately following a traumatic incident, or they may not appear until months, or even years later.

Panic disorder

Panic attacks are spontaneous and an abrupt feeling of fear usually accompanied by accelerated heart rate, trembling, chest pains, feelings of choking, nausea and shortness of breath. Attacks may be triggered by an underlying phobia, such as a fear of a particular place or environment or a social situation. The symptoms mimic those of a heart attack, driving many to seek emergency medical treatment. If you suffer panic attacks, just the fear of having one rise up at anytime will increase anxiety. The symptoms rise from the nervous system and are a reaction to danger, yet research has not determined why the attacks occur in some people when no danger is evident.

Social anxiety disorder

This is much more than shyness. People suffering social anxiety disorders have a debilitating fear of being judged by others. While almost everyone occasionally feels self-conscious, a social anxiety disorder can inhibit daily functioning. A date, a job interview or even a trip to the grocery store can lead to a paralyzing fear of being embarrassed or humiliated. The disorder usually begins to develop in childhood.   

Specific phobias

Are you afraid of spiders? You may feel uncomfortable in the presence of crawling insects, but if the fear brings on a panic attack, or even the thought of spiders makes you anxious, you may have a phobia. This type of anxiety disorder focuses on a feared object or situation. Some of the more common phobias are the fear of public speaking, fear of blood or injections, fear of specific creatures (insects, dogs, snakes), fear of flying and fear of enclosed spaces. Most phobias do not require treatment, although some can inhibit daily life. In its extreme manifestation, agoraphobia, a fear of open spaces, keeps sufferers hidden away in their homes, unable to participate in life outside their front door.