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Anxiety Disorders: Types, Causes, Symptoms and Treatments

Beth Pausic, Psy.D.

Reviewed by Beth Pausic, Psy.D

Written by Rachel Sacks

Published 01/14/2021

Updated 08/07/2023

Experiencing everyday worry or stress is a normal (if unwelcome) part of life. We get stressed over work or money issues or feel worried when dealing with a short-term health issue. However, these feelings of anxiety most likely go away once your problem is resolved.

But when stress and anxious thoughts linger? You may be dealing with an anxiety disorder.

Anxiety disorders are a group of mental health conditions that affect the way you think and feel — often interfering with daily activities. Unlike regular everyday stress, anxiety disorders cause persistent, sometimes severe anxiety that arises outside of typically stressful situations. Doesn’t sound like much fun, does it?

There are several types of anxiety disorders with both psychological and physical symptoms (again, not a lot of fun to experience). Below, we’ll take a look at the different types of anxiety, along with common symptoms and anxiety disorder treatments.

One myth about anxiety disorders is that not many people have them. In reality, just over 31 percent of U.S. adults will experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives — that’s nearly a third of the adult population.

Another common anxiety myth? That there’s only one type.

There are actually several anxiety types caused by various things, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). We’ll get further into what causes anxiety below, but first, here’s an overview of the most common types of anxiety disorders.

  • Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Will I be alright? Can anxiety kill me? What if my worry never goes away? If you’ve had persistent thoughts like these and experience excessive worry over health, work, social interactions or daily life, you might have generalized anxiety disorder. Those with GAD have these anxious thoughts frequently for several months or even years — just one difference between generalized anxiety disorder versus panic disorder.

  • Panic disorder. Rather than long-term anxiety, those with panic disorder have sudden and unexpected panic attacks. Panic attacks come about quickly and cause intense fear or a feeling of being out of control, along with physical symptoms like a rapid heartbeat and sweating. Panic attacks usually happen with no warning and seemingly no trigger.

  • Social anxiety disorder (social phobia). While some of us might get nervous before a party, others may feel intense fear at the thought of social situations. This is social anxiety disorder, also referred to as social phobia, a lingering fear of being watched or judged negatively.

A quick note: While it was once considered one of the anxiety types, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is no longer classified as a type of anxiety disorder, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), a reference book on mental health conditions.

There are some similar symptoms of anxiety disorders to post-traumatic stress disorder, and both mental health conditions may occur at the same time. However, PTSD has been reclassified as a trauma/stress-related disorder.

You may also see OCD — or obsessive-compulsive disorder — listed as one of the types of anxiety disorders. But despite also having similar symptoms of anxiety disorders, OCD isn’t classified as an anxiety disorder either, per the DSM-5.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder is a mental health condition marked by recurring, unwanted thoughts (obsessions) that cause distress and anxiety. So while you may have anxiety as a result of OCD, these thoughts then cause repeated behaviors (compulsions) to try and ease the distress.

To understand the difference between OCD and anxiety, imagine two people who are afraid of getting sick. One may avoid those who are ill and become extremely nervous around sick people, while the other washes their hands excessively and counts the number of seconds to prevent illness. The first person has anxiety, and the other suffers from OCD.

As mentioned above, there are several signs of anxiety, including mental and physical symptoms.

Many symptoms of anxiety overlap between different anxiety types:

  • Difficulty concentrating on anything other than current worries or concerns or intrusive thoughts that randomly pop up

  • Trouble sleeping or anxiety at night keeping you awake

  • Feelings of nervousness and restlessness

  • Feelings of physical weakness and/or tiredness

  • Increased heart palpitations or rapid heart rate (a rapid heartbeat is just one of the physical symptoms of anxiety)

  • Gastrointestinal issues, such as stomachaches, cramps, diarrhea or constipation

  • Shortness of breath or rapid breathing (hyperventilation)

  • Sweating

  • Trembling

  • Urges to avoid people, objects or situations that may cause anxiety

Very often, these symptoms can become overwhelming and lead to debilitating anxiety, regardless of what anxiety disorder you have.

Certain anxiety disorders may have specific symptoms. Panic disorder, for example, is marked by unexpected panic attacks, which can cause similar physical symptoms of anxiety, like heart palpitations. Panic attacks may also cause chest pain.

While many symptoms of anxiety overlap, certain anxiety disorder treatments differ, which we’ll cover further below.

Since anxiety disorders differ from everyday stress and worry, you may be wondering what causes anxiety.

Experts aren’t yet aware of precisely what causes anxiety. However, research shows that genetic and environmental factors — such as certain childhood behavioral traits or a family history of anxiety — may contribute to a risk of developing an anxiety disorder.

Keep reading for a rundown of the risk factors, with information about how each may contribute to the development of anxiety.

Have you ever wondered, What age does anxiety peak?. We hate to break it to you, but anxiety can affect people of all ages and backgrounds, usually beginning in adolescence.

That said, certain factors may give you a higher risk of developing an anxiety disorder than other people. You may have an elevated risk of developing an anxiety disorder if:

  • You’re female. Women are twice as likely as men to develop anxiety, with approximately one in every five women in the U.S. affected by anxiety disorders.

  • You have a family history of anxiety or other mental illnesses. Genetic factors, such as a family history of anxiety or other mental illnesses, may contribute to your risk of developing an anxiety disorder.

  • You had shyness or behavioral inhibition as a child. Childhood shyness or inhibition is a risk factor for anxiety disorders. Studies show that children with behavioral inhibition (BI) have a sevenfold increased risk of developing social anxiety disorder.

  • You’ve previously been exposed to stressful or traumatic events. People who’ve been exposed to stressful or negative events, whether in childhood or as an adult, may be more likely to develop anxiety from trauma.

  • You suffer from other mental illnesses. People with other mental conditions are more likely to develop anxiety disorders.

  • You drink coffee or other beverages with caffeine. While many of us enjoy coffee, caffeine has been found to increase anxiety and exacerbate sleep disorders. Caffeine itself doesn’t cause an anxiety disorder, but it might make the symptoms worse. Caffeine withdrawal may also cause an increase in anxiety, restlessness, tremors and other symptoms.

  • You have physical health problems. Some physical medical conditions, such as heart arrhythmias (an irregular heartbeat) and thyroid conditions, may cause or aggravate anxiety.

  • You use illicit drugs or drink alcohol. Substance use, like using illicit drugs and drinking heavily, may increase your risk of developing anxiety or cause an existing anxiety disorder to worsen.

If you’re at risk for anxiety or find yourself dealing with long-lasting anxiety, these chronic anxiety coping tips may help. There are also several anxiety disorder treatments proven to be effective, which we discuss next.

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If you’re worried you have an anxiety disorder, talking to your healthcare provider or a mental health specialist is the first step to getting an accurate anxiety diagnosis. And if your symptoms are worsening over time, you might be wondering: does anxiety get worse with age?

Treating anxiety disorders typically involves the use of medication, psychotherapy and changes to your lifestyle, such as stress management techniques and anxiety prevention habits.

Medications 

Although medication doesn’t cure anxiety, it can help you manage your anxiety and relieve your symptoms.

If you have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, your healthcare provider may recommend using one of several medications:

  • Antidepressants — such as Zoloft® (sertraline), Lexapro® (escitalopram), Paxil® (paroxetine), Cymbalta® (duloxetine) and Wellbutrin XL (bupropion) — may be used for anxiety. Antidepressants can take several weeks to work and often come with side effects.

  • Anti-anxiety medications like benzodiazepines work quickly to promote a relaxed feeling, providing immediate relief from anxiety symptoms. However, benzodiazepines can lead to dependence after long-term use.

  • Buspirone (generic for Buspar®) is a medication used for generalized anxiety disorder, often as a second-line treatment for people who don’t respond to other medications, such as antidepressants.

  • Beta-blockers like propranolol block the effects of stress hormones on your heart and are occasionally used off-label to treat physical symptoms of performance anxiety — a type of anxiety that occurs before speeches or performances. While beta-blockers can prevent the physical symptoms of anxiety, they don’t treat the psychological symptoms.

Psychotherapy

Many anxiety disorders can be treated through psychotherapy (also known as talk therapy). Two common forms of psychotherapy used to treat anxiety disorders are cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and exposure therapy.

Cognitive behavioral therapy involves learning different methods of thinking and reacting to sources of anxiety. Exposure therapy involves being exposed to situations or objects that may trigger or worsen anxiety in a safe environment.

You can explore both types of psychotherapy and connect with a mental health professional through our online therapy platform.

Lifestyle Changes 

While medication or psychotherapy is most effective for anxiety, certain changes to your lifestyle and habits can be part of a treatment plan to improve your daily life.

Relaxation techniques like yoga, meditation and mindfulness can help calm your anxiety. Getting more sleep is always a great idea — and a great way to improve your mental health.

Additionally, it’s important to have a good support system of family members, friends and other loved ones who care about you. You can join a self-help or support group for additional care.

You can also reduce anxiety in the moment by keeping a journal to help identify what triggers your anxiety. Check out this guide on controlling your anxiety for more helpful tips.

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While anxious thoughts or stress can pop up occasionally, daily anxiety that causes debilitating symptoms could be a sign of an anxiety disorder.

  • Anxiety disorders are a group of mental health conditions that affect how you think, feel and behave — and they impact your quality of life.

  • There are different types of anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder and social anxiety disorder, also known as social phobia.

  • Symptoms of anxiety can be both physical and mental and may vary slightly among different types of anxiety. However, some common symptoms include focusing on your worries, trouble sleeping, nervousness, heart palpitations, stomach issues, rapid breathing and sweating.

  • The most common ways to treat anxiety disorders are with medication, psychotherapy and lifestyle changes.

To say dealing with an anxiety disorder can be a struggle is a major understatement. But while they affect millions of people each year, anxiety disorders are treatable.

When you talk with a licensed psychiatrist or healthcare provider through online psychiatry, you can learn more about the type of anxiety disorder you might have and get started with a treatment plan.

There are also plenty of mental health services available to help you figure out your next step.

17 Sources

Hims & Hers has strict sourcing guidelines to ensure our content is accurate and current. We rely on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We strive to use primary sources and refrain from using tertiary references.

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This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment. Learn more about our editorial standards here.

Beth Pausic, Psy.D

Dr. Beth Pausic is a clinical psychologist and oversees the therapy platform at Hims & Hers. 

Prior to Hims & Hers, Beth worked in senior roles at several behavioral healthcare startups focused on the digital delivery of emotional support and treatment through both conventional and innovative approaches. 

Her experience prior to working in telebehavioral health includes over 15 years as a Clinical Administrator and provider in diverse clinical settings. In her clinical work, she primarily focused on anxiety, depression and relationships. 

Dr. Pausic received her doctorate from George Washington University. You can find Beth on Linkedin for more information.


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