Clinically reviewed by Dr. Chris Mosunic, PhD, RD, CDCES, MBA

What is anxiety? 

By Vivian Nunez

A look at the different kinds of anxiety disorders.

We all define anxiety differently. The clinical definition helps give us all a common starting point that is then personalized based on our own experiences, triggers, or coping mechanisms. It’s what makes talking about mental health so important and necessary. The more we talk through how anxiety, or its related conditions, manifest, the less we’re left asking, “Is this only me?!” 

Establishing a shared definition for anxiety helps kickstart an “anxiety dictionary” that can make it easier to communicate and seek support when you are struggling. 

According to the American Psychological Association, “Anxiety is an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes like increased blood pressure.” 

A recent study by the CDC found that: 

  • Women are more likely than men to experience symptoms of anxiety 
  • US adults between the ages of 18-29 experienced symptoms of anxiety at a greater degree than other age groups  
  • Race and ethnicity impacted the severity by which symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder presented 

On a larger scale, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, over 40 million adults in the U.S. have had an anxiety disorder in the past year. That’s about 19% of the adult population. 

Is there more than one kind of anxiety? 

The word “anxiety” is used to describe a number of symptoms as well as conditions. This is why some will relate when anxiety is described as a feeling of restlessness or irritability, while others will connect more to the physical symptoms of anxiety, like a racing heart or an upset stomach. Depending on the circumstances, some may experience anxiety as a combination of emotional and physical symptoms. 

Each anxiety disorder has its own defining set of symptoms, but those symptoms may overlap with other conditions too. 

What are examples of anxiety disorders? 

According to the National Alliance of Mental Illness, the most common types of anxiety disorders are generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), panic disorder, phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and social anxiety disorder. 

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)  — Those who live with GAD experience anxiety persistently for a significant amount of time (months, if not years). GAD is usually triggered by many aspects of a person’s life (it’s where the “generalized” descriptor comes from), as opposed to a specific trigger. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, some GAD symptoms include being easily fatigued, having difficulty concentrating, body aches, and difficulty controlling feelings of worry. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America found that about 6.8 million U.S. adults live with GAD. 

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) — OCD is characterized by intrusive thoughts and irrational urges that impact daily life. Symptoms typically last more than an hour each day, according to NAMI. Data shows that men can have an onset of OCD at a younger age than women, but women are still more than five times more likely to be affected than men. Overall, OCD affects 2.5 million adults in the United States, according to the ADAA

Panic Disorder — For 6 million adults, their anxiety presents as panic disorder, according to the ADAA. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, those who live with panic disorder have frequent and unexpected panic attacks. The National Alliance of Mental Illness notes that panic attacks are often mistaken for heart attacks because of their symptoms, which include chest pain, heart palpitations, dizziness, and shortness of breath. 

Phobias — According to NAMI, phobias are fearful reactions often resulting from a specific trigger. Each phobia can be unique to each person and can be rooted in their own lived experiences. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, about 19.3 million U.S. adults live with a specific phobia. 

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Over 7.7 million adults in the U.S. are impacted by PTSD, according to the ADAA. PTSD describes a host of symptoms that can surface after a person experiences a traumatic event. Women are five times more likely to experience PTSD when compared to men. 

Social Anxiety Disorder — About 15 million adults in the U.S. experience social anxiety disorder. Social anxiety is characterized by fearing social situations so much so that it stops someone from going to work, school, or other activities. Common symptoms include feeling excessively self-conscious, difficulty making eye contact, or physical tension overall.

What are the causes and treatments for anxiety disorders? 

In 2022, under new government recommendations, doctors started screening for anxiety disorders during annual physicals. While anxiety isn’t pinpointed to a single gene or life experience (see: phobias above), certain factors put some people more at risk than others. 

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, stressful or negative life events, environmental events, a history of anxiety in a person’s family, or even physical conditions can increase the likelihood of an anxiety disorder. 

Each person’s anxiety is unique, and so is how anxiety is treated. Baseline treatment options include therapy, medications, and lifestyle changes like meditation or breathing. Finding what works for any person requires trial and error and sometimes some expert guidance.

Calm Health is a mental health wellness product. Calm Health is not intended to diagnose or treat depression, anxiety, or any other disease or condition. Calm Health is not a substitute for care by a physician or other health care provider. Any questions that you may have regarding the diagnosis, care, or treatment of a medical condition should be directed to your physician or health care provider.

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