Understanding Anxiety Disorders

If your worries are keeping you from making it through your day, you may have an anxiety disorder.

By Diana Rodriguez

Medically reviewed by Niya Jones, MD, MPH

Yes, we all worry. But when worrying interferes with your job, your health, or your well-being, you may have an anxiety disorder. An anxiety disorder can cause physical symptoms such as headaches and insomnia and keep you from being able to function well in your daily life.

“Anxiety is not only present in all people some of the time, anxiety in some form or another is present in all people a lot of the time,” says Charles Goodstein, MD, a clinical professor of psychiatry at New York University Langone Medical Center. “It’s often under the radar, it’s not detected, it’s unconscious. Anxiety is part of life. What makes a disorder is when people have anxiety that mounts to such an intensity that they’re no longer able to cope with it. We all devise methods, unconscious and conscious, to deal with it, and therefore we don’t perceive it to be agonizing. Some people don’t have those measures.”

Anxiety Disorders: Understanding the Nuances

Anxiety disorders are diagnosed by specific type:

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). People with this type of anxiety disorder feel constantly anxious and worried. Often, there’s no specific problem that provokes people with GAD to worry, but even so, they remain anxious. This type of extreme, daily worrying must continue for at least six months to warrant a GAD diagnosis. Anyone can develop GAD, but more women deal with this anxiety disorder than men. The condition is usually treated with medication, cognitive-behavioral therapy (structured therapy to learn how to recognize and cope with fears), or a combination of both methods.

Social anxiety disorder (social phobia). People with social phobia become anxious and stressed in social situations — anything from speaking in public in front of large crowds to dining out with just a few friends. These people dread social situations because of a fear of judgment and embarrassment. Women and men are equally likely to experience social anxiety disorder, but it’s thought that some people may be genetically predisposed to the condition. This type of anxiety disorder can also be treated with therapy, medications, or both.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). People with OCD obsess about certain thoughts or concerns, like something bad happening to a loved one, and create a particular routine to cope with these obsessions. Repetitive behavior, like checking and re-checking an alarm clock or locks on doors, and strict routines, like having to get dressed a certain way or put things away in a particular order, are signs of OCD. Men, women, and children can all develop OCD. Medications and psychotherapy that involves dealing with specific fears and anxieties can help treat the disorder.

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