Types of Anxiety: How to Distinguish Everyday Nerves from Anxiety

These days, it feels like seemingly everyone has anxiety, or else some other kind of mental health problem. Evolving technology, increased connectivity and the ever-rising consumption of materials, media, and information have meant that the pressure to perform continues to rise.

These high-stress environments can manifest in many different ways in different people. When some people get very stressed, they might feel that they just need to buckle down and get their work done, while others might just need to take a short break, clear their head, or do some other activity that calms and rejuvenates them. But for some, daily stress and anxiety can manifest into something much larger, sometimes evolving into depression and social phobias.

When stress and anxiety begin to disrupt our lives, it’s hard to pinpoint the problems. This is because anxiety encompasses a host of distinct disorders which can manifest with very different symptoms. Here we’ll try to elucidate the large family of disorders that fall under the anxiety umbrella, what symptoms can be expected of each of these types of anxiety, and first steps in dealing with your anxiety or anxiety disorder.  

What is Anxiety?

While the feeling of anxiety, commonly associated with feeling worried or nervous is a universal and natural reaction to stress, it is important to differentiate it from anxiety as an umbrella term used to encompass a number of different conditions, the most common of these being Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). Other types of anxiety disorders have similar symptoms and characteristics to GAD, but are otherwise distinct in their causes and manifestations. The six most common types of anxiety disorders include GAD, Panic Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and Specific Phobias.

While each specific anxiety disorder has its own distinct characteristics, these disorders are encompassed under one umbrella for the symptoms that they share. Both physical and psychological symptoms are common to all anxiety disorders and affect millions of people worldwide, and these include:

  • Restlessness
  • Excessive worry
  • Excessive trembling and sweating
  • Nausea and Dizziness
  • Chest pain and headaches
  • Impaired concentration

Types of Anxiety Disorders

1. Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

As mentioned above, Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is the most common and widespread type of anxiety worldwide and afflicts 7 million US adults each year (with women being twice as likely to be affected by GAD than men). It is most commonly characterized by excessive and long-lasting worry, and people with GAD can develop severe or irrational concerns or fears alongside specific triggers.

While some anxiety is a natural part of life, GAD is characterized by an ongoing state of mental and/or physical tension, and feeling constantly on edge, worried, anxious or stressed in a way that is disruptive to your life. The key here is that the anxiety does not seem to go away, and along with the more general anxiety symptoms listed above, GAD is commonly associated with the following problems:

  • Constant irritation, edginess or feeling out of control
  • Generally low energy levels
  • Difficulty sleeping (insomnia)
  • Trouble focusing on tasks or activities
  • Muscle tension

2. Panic Disorder

Panic Disorders are characterized by brief and unexpected ‘panic attacks’ of intense terror, apprehension or doom. This disorder is very different from GAD in that the symptoms can be sudden, intense, and debilitating, so much so that people often need to be hospitalized during or right after the attack because they or their loved ones believe that there is something very wrong with their health. While many people will experience panic attacks in their lives in response to intense stressors, panic disorders are characterized by repeated panic attacks, and/or by a fear of having more panic attacks.

So what exactly does a panic attack feel like? If you have ever had a sudden, dreadful feeling of fear accompanied by physical symptoms that last several minutes, then you may have already suffered from a panic attack. The most common accompanying symptoms during a panic attack include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Racing heart
  • Shaking or trembling
  • Sweating or hot/cold flashes
  • Weakness or dizziness
  • Fear of dying
  • Depersonalization or dissociation (Feeling like you’re outside of yourself
  • Chest or stomach pain

These physical symptoms are also accompanied by mental symptoms and may include a feeling as though you’re about to die, severe anxiety (especially health anxiety), and a feeling of helplessness. Panic attacks are often triggered by fear, stress, or can have a sudden onset with seemingly no trigger at all.

As mentioned above, repeated panic attacks are not the only indicator of a panic disorder; living in constant fear of panic attacks can be equally debilitating and may also indicate that a person is suffering a panic disorder. Panic disorders affect 6 million adults in the US or 2.7% of the U.S. population, and they are also twice as likely to afflict women than men.

Types of Anxiety: Is it nerves or an anxiety disorder?

3. Social Anxiety Disorder

Another anxiety disorder comes in the form of an irrational fear of social situations, andis characterized by intense fear of being judged, embarrassed, negatively evaluated or rejected in a social situation. While it is normal to feel nervous before a presentation, speech, or when meeting new people, social anxiety disorder is characterized by more than just a small degree of shyness or discomfort when in public places.

Social anxiety disorder is characterized by a disruptiveness; those with social anxiety disorder tend to worry for days or weeks leading up to particular event or situation, and may avoid the situation altogether. Those suffering from a social anxiety disorder may also worry about acting or appearing visibly anxious or awkward, or being viewed as stupid, strange, or boring. While they may acknowledge that their fear is excessive or unreasonable, they are often powerless to stop it.

Individuals with a social anxiety disorder can experience strong physical symptoms leading up to a social event, including rapid heart rate, nausea, and sweating, and usually, live with two or more of the following:

  • Anxiousness about the idea of social situations
  • Intense discomfort when meeting new people or being asked to speak
  • Feeling hopeless or fearful when with unfamiliar people or in new social environments
  • Anxiety over being watched, observed or judged by strangers or people known to us
  • Severe anxiety over public speaking

For the most part, those with social anxiety disorders try to avoid any and all social situations as best they can, which can lead to other depressive symptoms. Social anxiety disorder is the second most commonly diagnosed anxiety disorder and affects approximately 15 million American adults every year.

4. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Of the six major types of anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is the only one that involves engaging in repetitive compulsions or obsessions, as opposed to fearing or avoiding triggers. Obsessions and compulsions exhibit themselves in particular ways:

While obsessions involve having repeated thoughts, urges, or mental images that cause anxiety, compulsions involve repetitive behaviors that a person with the disorder feels the urge to perform in response to an obsessive thought. For example, an obsession might involve worrying that your child hasn’t gone to sleep, while a compulsion might involve touching your child’s head every night due to a belief that it is needed for the child to go to sleep.

While everyone has rituals or habits, like checking that the door is locked or that all the lights are off, a person with obsessive-compulsive disorder can’t control their thoughts or behaviors and experiences significant problems in their daily life due to obsessive and compulsive thoughts and behaviors. Obsessions and compulsions may also appear together, like having an obsessive fear of germs with leads to a compulsive hand washing. Similarly to social anxiety disorder, individuals with OCD can recognize that their behaviors are excessive or unwarranted, but often feel powerless in carrying them through.

5. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

People with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) develop this disorder after experiencing a shocking, scary or dangerous event.  While many people will experience a traumatic event at some point in their lifetimes, only around 8% of people will experience PTSD. It is normal to feel stressed, anxious or overwhelmed after a traumatic event, PTSD is thought to involve having these symptoms for more than one month.

Along with feelings of stress, anxiety and overwhelm, individuals suffering from PTSD might experience a host of other symptoms, including:

  • Reliving the trauma: those with PTSD may relive their trauma both emotionally and physically
  • Triggered responses: those with PTSD may have triggers that cause the onset of intense stress or fear, like a loud noise or particular smell
  • Anxiety: Experiencing regular daily anxiety, including recurring thoughts or nightmares about the event, trouble sleeping or loss of appetite, difficult making decisions, anger, guilt, and feeling scattered and unfocused
  • Emotional trouble: PTSD can cause some to feel distant and disinterested with those they love or with the activities that were once enjoyable, or else experience ‘disaster thinking’ – a constant fear that something bad is going to happen

7. Phobias

In contrast to GAD, phobia disorders are not generalized at all, but rather revolve around specific situations or things. Specific phobias involve strong, irrational fears of one or more objects, people, animals, or situations. People suffering from specific phobias experience overwhelming, disruptive and exaggerated fear that can cause difficulty functioning normally at work, school, in personal relationships, or in your everyday life. Most phobias arise suddenly and unexpectedly, and even the thought of the specific phobia can cause severe anxiety.

A common example of a specific phobia is arachnophobia or fear of spiders. While few spiders that live in urban areas actually have the potential to harm humans, many people experience a feeling of intense fear or dread at the thought, sight or mention of spiders. Phobias commonly cause symptoms including:

  • Excessive and constant fear of a specific situation
  • Feeling of error when confronted with the phobia
  • Taking excessive precautions in order to avoid a situation or object
  • Inability to control fear or emotion, even though you feel that it is irrational

Many people with phobias can go their entire lives without seeking treatment if they are successfully  able to avoid their triggers. One type of phobia, agoraphobia, involves fear of going out in public, of open spaces or of being in an unfamiliar place. This can lead to people never leaving their home, or traveling anywhere except for their home, office, or other familiar places, or else they feel debilitating fear. As you can imagine, phobias like agoraphobia are often hard to avoid completely without having a large impact on the sufferers’ life and relationships, and this sort of phobia usually necessitates some sort of treatment.

What to do if you think you might have an anxiety disorder

The above information should give you an idea of the types of anxiety you can suffer from, but only a medical professional can diagnose a disorder. There are many ways to learn to manage your anxiety – all you need to do is identify the problem, choose a technique that works for you, and stick to it. No matter what type of anxiety you’re suffering from, it’s possible to get it under control and return to a life undisrupted by constant anxiety.


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