Anxiety is your body’s natural response to stress. It is a feeling of fear and apprehension about what’s to come. We all feel it at times; the first day of school, going to a job interview, or giving a speech cause most people to feel fearful and nervous. But if your feelings of anxiety are extreme, last for longer than six months, and are interfering with your life, you may have an anxiety disorder.
Anxiety disorders can affect anyone at any age. Anxiety disorders are the most common form of emotional disorder. (APA) Approximately 40 million American adults (18 percent of the population) are affected by an anxiety disorder in any given year. (NIMH)
If you have an anxiety disorder, you may also be depressed. Some people with anxiety disorders abuse alcohol or other drugs in an effort to feel better. This may provide temporary relief, but can ultimately make the condition worse. It may be necessary to treat an alcohol or drug problem before the anxiety can be addressed.
Anxiety is hard to describe. You might feel like you’re standing in the middle of a crumbling building with nothing but an umbrella to protect you. Or you might feel like you’re holding onto a merry-go-round going 65 mph and can’t do anything to slow it down. You might feel butterflies in your stomach, or your heart might be racing. You could experience nightmares, panic, or painful thoughts or memories that you can’t control. You may have a general feeling of fear and worry, or you may fear a specific place or event.
Anxiety is a feeling of fear you have when you must do something stressful. It’s normal to feel anxious about moving to a new place, starting a new job, or taking a test. Normal anxiety is unpleasant, but it may motivate you to work harder and do a better job. Normal anxiety is a feeling that comes and goes, but does not interfere with your everyday life.
In the case of an anxiety disorder, the feeling of fear may be with you all the time. It is intense and sometimes debilitating. This type of anxiety may cause you to stop doing things you enjoy. In extreme cases, it may prevent you from entering an elevator or crossing the street or even leaving your home. If left untreated, the anxiety will keep getting worse.
An anxiety disorder can take many forms, including:
- panic disorder: characterized by bouts of intense fear or terror that develop quickly and unexpectedly
- phobia: excessive fear of a specific object, situation, or activity
- social anxiety disorder: extreme fear of being judged by others in social situations
- obsessive-compulsive disorder: recurring irrational thoughts that lead you to perform specific, repeated behavior
- separation anxiety disorder: fear of being away from home or loved ones
- hypochondriasis: anxiety about your health
- post-traumatic stress disorder: anxiety following a traumatic event, such as the death of a loved one, war, or being the victim of a crime
Anxiety disorders can be treated with medication, psychotherapy, or a combination of the two. Some people who have a mild anxiety disorder or a fear of something they can easily avoid decide to live with the condition and to not seek treatment.
It is important to understand that anxiety disorder is an illness and can be treated, even in severe cases. Treatment may not result in a complete cure, but in most cases, the symptoms can be controlled so you can live a normal life.
Written by: the Healthline Editorial Team
Published on Jul 28, 2014
Medically reviewed on Jul 28, 2014 by Brenda B. Spriggs, MD