Anxiety can be a completely normal response to stress. Anxiety becomes a disorder when it’s out of proportion to what’s going on or is impossible to control.
Everyone feels anxious in certain situations. Some people become nervous or jittery when they’re talking to strangers, taking a particularly hard exam, or waiting to hear whether a job will pan out. Anxiety that pops up now and then is a natural part of life, and can be a completely normal response to stress.
Anxiety becomes a disorder when it’s out of proportion to what’s going on or is impossible to control. Anxiety can feel so overwhelming that it hurts a person’s ability to work, study, interact with people, or follow a daily routine. It can be a real medical condition, developing from a complex set of biological and environmental factors, including genetics, biochemistry, and traumatic life events.
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illnesses in the US. Generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, phobias, and social-anxiety disorder are all types of anxiety disorders.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
People with generalized anxiety experience excessive and uncontrollable worries about everyday things. GAD sufferers spend a lot of time dwelling on “what if?” and imagining the worst possible outcomes. Their anxiety is usually disproportionate to the source of worry—concerns that most people find manageable can feel like insurmountable obstacles. This anxiety interferes with day-to-day life and can manifest in physical symptoms such as headaches, nausea, trembling, and fidgeting.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
People with OCD experience intrusive, repetitive thoughts and obsessions. In turn, the obsessions trigger compulsive or routine behaviors meant to prevent an imaginary dreaded event. For example, OCD sufferers may wash their hands repeatedly because of an irrational fear of germs, or will check doors over and over to be sure they’re locked. OCD can be an extremely disabling illness that interferes with work, school, and social obligations. A person with OCD knows that their thoughts and behaviors don’t make sense, but is unable to control them.
Panic disorder is characterized by recurring panic attacks, in which a person feels extreme physical anxiety that can last several minutes. Symptoms of a panic attack include shortness of breath and visual disorientation. Many times, people don’t realize they’re having a panic attack, and will show up at the doctor’s office thinking they’re very ill. Panic disorder typically develops in late adolescence or early adulthood, but not everyone who experiences panic attacks will develop panic disorder. Many people have just one attack and never have another.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
PTSD is an anxiety disorder that can develop after experiencing a traumatic event, such as a natural disaster, serious accident, terrorist incident, sudden death of a loved one, war, or violent assault. Brain imaging studies show that a part of the brain critical to memory and emotion appears to be different in people with PTSD. These changes are thought to be responsible for intrusive memories and flashbacks that occur in people with this disorder. PTSD flashbacks may be so strong that individuals feel like they are actually re-living the traumatic event.
A phobia is the excessive or unreasonable fear of something that actually presents little or no danger. Phobias can take many forms; common forms are fear of heights and fear of animals. A person suffering from a phobia may go to great lengths to avoid the feared object or situation, which can prolong or worsen the phobia. Approximately 5 -10% of the US population has one or more phobias. People with phobias, particularly social phobia, may also have problems with substance abuse.
Social Anxiety Disorder
Social Anxiety Disorder causes a person distress in social situations. It’s an extreme form of shyness. The socially anxious person can’t relax or “take it easy” around people. They feel so self-conscious about being judged by others that they’ll go out of their way to avoid talking to people or mingling in a group. Social anxiety can cause physical symptoms such as trembling, nausea, and sweating in social settings.
Because anxiety appears in so many different conditions, it can look very different from person to person. Some people express their anxiety emotionally, while others show signs of physical distress. The unifying factor, however, is a sense of overwhelming, irrational fear. Here are some signs that someone is experiencing anxiety:
- Excessive worry with an inability to control it
- Intense episodes of fear or panic
- Recurring nightmares
- Avoidance of social situations
- Difficulty concentrating
- Repeated, unwanted thoughts or obsessions
- Sleep disturbances
- Upsetting, intrusive memories of a traumatic event
- Physical symptoms such as nausea, stomach pain, rapid heart rate, muscle tension, sweating, shaking, dizziness, numbness, or difficulty breathing
Fortunately, anxiety disorders are manageable with treatment, such as counseling and/or medication. Therapy for anxiety disorders works by helping people identify and change the irrational beliefs or fears behind their anxiety. A healthy lifestyle also plays an important role in managing anxiety—adequate sleep, nutrition, and exercise can all help minimize symptoms, as can relaxation techniques such as deep breathing or meditation. If you or someone you know may have an anxiety disorder, contact your school’s health center, especially if thoughts of suicide are present. The health center can offer tips on anxiety-management techniques, or connect you with a therapist or group counseling. With proper treatment, an anxiety disorder shouldn’t stand in the way of a successful, productive life.
Please be sure to select your school above so we can provide you with information about resources and help on or near your campus.
Are you worried that a friend or loved one has an anxiety disorder? You may see warning signs that they can’t or don’t want to acknowledge. Maybe you’ve noticed that they act especially tense or fearful in certain situations. Maybe they complain about feeling nervous or obsessed about matters that aren’t threatening to most people. Don’t assume that the problem will go away on its own, or that your friend can just “snap out of it.”
Before talking about your concerns with your friend, it’s a good idea to educate yourself on the symptoms and causes of anxiety. Explain to your friend that lately they’ve been behaving in ways that worry you. Some people get defensive or angry when they’re confronted; your conversation may go more smoothly if you don’t judge, get upset, or make accusations. Instead, try listening to your friend and asking open-ended questions about their feelings. You can’t force your friend into action, but you can make a big difference by offering your encouragement and help in seeking treatment.