This post outlines symptoms of the most common anxiety disorders. You may be feeling anxious but not know why. You may be feeling anxious but are not sure if it’s the anxiety that everyone deals with or if it’s something more significant. Below I’ve summarized the major anxiety disorders and some signs that might suggest more screening for a disorder is needed.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is one of the most common anxiety disorders. It’s a type of anxiety disorder that involves excessive worry about a number of different things. The worry is experienced as difficulty to control, meaning that once you get started it’s hard to flip the switch, disengage, and think about something else. Worries are often about everyday topics like relationships, money, safety, social situations, housework, running errands, or being on time. They might also be about more serious or unlikely topics. People with GAD often say they feel like they’ve been a worrier their whole lives (but not necessarily). GAD often comes with worry behaviors, like searching the internet, asking for reassurance, checking bank balances over and over, or excessive planning and list making.
You might have GAD if you experience the following symptoms most of the time:
- Worry about a lot of different things
- Worry for several hours each day
- Physical symptoms, like feeling irritable, restless, or tense
- Cognitive symptoms, like trouble concentrating or making decisions
- Trouble sleeping most nights
The distinguishing feature of panic disorder is sudden, unexpected panic attacks and worry about having another attack. Panic attacks are brief and intense periods of fear. They are made up of several physical symptoms that come on all at once, in a burst of anxiety. True panic attacks are time limited and reach their worst point within a few minutes. If you feel intense anxiety that lasts for hours, that’s not a panic attack and may be related to GAD instead.
You may have panic disorder if:
- You experience very intense, short term instances of severe anxiety
- While having the attacks you experience increased heart rate, shortness of breath, sweating, shaking, chest tightness, dizziness, stomach distress, heat/chills, tingling, or numbness
- While having the attacks you are afraid you might be dying, going crazy, or having a medical emergency
- You’re not doing things you used to because you’re afraid of having another attack
Agoraphobia is a fear of places or situations where it might be difficult to escape or get help if you have a panic attack. People with agoraphobia may avoid leaving their home, crowded places, or places where they feel trapped, like getting a haircut, in the center row at a performance, or in a car wash.
You may have agoraphobia if:
- There are places you won’t go because you’re afraid you’ll have a panic attack
- You are only able to go places if you have someone go with you
- You need to have your phone, medication, or other safety objects with you in case you have an attack
Social Anxiety Disorder
Social anxiety disorder (SAD) is also one of the most common anxiety disorders. SAD is a fear of situations involving other people. People with social anxiety disorder often worry about being awkward, being judged negatively, or doing something embarrassing. Triggering social situations might include making small talk, talking to people in positions of authority, performing or speaking in public, dating situations, working in groups, and being assertive. A common response to social anxiety is to avoid social situations altogether. Others endure these situations with distress or try not to attract attention by avoiding eye contact, scrolling on their phone, or not joining in on conversations.
You might have social anxiety if you frequently experience the following:
- Worrying about what others think of you
- Physical symptoms like blushing, sweating, shaking, or quivery voice in social situations
- Feeling self-conscious and evaluating the situations in real time
- Rehearsing before social interactions or phone calls
- Trouble making friends or starting romantic relationships
- Avoiding social situations
Specific phobias are fears of certain specific things. People with specific phobias feel nervous and fearful when they have to be around these things or if they might have to be around them. If they do have to be around the feared object, people with specific phobias often have an intense anxiety reaction and might cry or even have a panic attack. Common phobias include fears of heights, flying, vomiting, animals, bugs, storms, small spaces, driving, and others.
You might have a specific phobia if you experience the following in relation to a certain, specific thing:
- Anxious apprehension about the possibility of confronting your fear
- Intense anxiety when you have to be around your feared object or in your feared situation
- Avoidance of the object/situation if at all possible
- Your fear of the object/situation has caused problems at home, at work/school, or in relationships
Health Anxiety/Illness Anxiety Disorder
Health anxiety is more accurately called illness anxiety disorder and is a condition where people find themselves preoccupied with the possibility of having a serious medical condition. People with health anxiety often respond to bodily changes with anxiety and feel a need to know if the sensation is dangerous. They may worry excessively about a particular symptom until it is resolved, only to find themselves moving on to the next sensation and what it means. People with health anxiety often seek reassurance that their symptoms are harmless, often from medical professionals, loved ones, or by searching the internet.
You may have illness anxiety disorder if you:
- Are often preoccupied with your body and fears about your health
- Frequently search the internet for health related information
- Often check your body or scan your body for sensations or symptoms
- Ask others over and over about your sensation/symptom
- Avoid places or situations that might trigger uncomfortable sensations (exercise, caffeine, heat, etc.)
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is characterized by unwanted and intrusive thoughts (obsessions) and associated behaviors (compulsions). Obsessions are thoughts, images, or urges that come into a person’s mind without their intention. Common themes of OCD obsessions include contamination, causing harm, taboo thoughts (e.g., sexual thoughts about children, animals, or family members), doubts about sexual orientation, doubts about a romantic relationship, doubts about decision making, perfectionism, and a feeling that things need to be “just right.”
These thoughts cause anxiety or distress, which is then responded to with some attempt to regulate the uncomfortable feelings (the compulsion). Compulsions might be physical actions, like checking something or searching the internet, or mental actions, like ruminating, replaying a situation, or trying to figure something out.
You might have OCD if you:
- Have distressing thoughts pop into your mind over and over
- Feel preoccupied with these thoughts and why they’re happening/what they mean
- Complete a physical behavior over and over to cope with the anxiety that comes from the thoughts (check, seek reassurance, search the internet)
- Complete a mental activity over and over or for a long time to cope with the anxiety that comes from the thoughts (ruminate, review, figure something out, overthink)
- Feel exhausted from the effort it takes to manage these thoughts and responses to them
This post has covered some of the most common anxiety disorders. If you’d like to learn more, the NIMH has additional resources.
If these symptoms are disruptive to your life at home, work, school, with others, or prevent you from relaxing and enjoying time off, it may be time to reach out to someone. I hope this guide helps to clarify the signs and symptoms associated with anxiety disorders. Knowing what kind of symptoms you have can help you make more informed choices about the types of therapy that are likely to work. If you have any questions at all, please feel free to reach out to us here.