Recognizing Anxiety


Anxiety is a feeling of worry, nervousness, or fear about an event or situation. It is a normal reaction to stress. It helps you stay alert for a challenging situation at work, study harder for an exam, or remain focused on an important speech. In general, it helps you cope. But anxiety can be disabling if it interferes with daily life, such as making you dread nonthreatening day-to-day activities like riding the bus or talking to a coworker. Anxiety can also be a sudden attack of terror when there is no threat.

What are anxiety disorders?

Anxiety disorders happen when excessive anxiety interferes with your everyday activities such as going to work or school or spending time with friends or family. Anxiety disorders can be serious mental illnesses. They are the most common mental disorders in the United States. Anxiety disorders are more than twice as common in women as in men.

What are the major types of anxiety disorder?

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).  People with GAD worry excessively about ordinary, day-to-day issues, such as health, money, work, and family. With GAD, the mind often jumps to the worst-case scenario, even when there is little or no reason to worry. People with GAD may be anxious about just getting through the day. They may have muscle tension and other stress-related physical symptoms, such as trouble sleeping or upset stomach. At times, worrying keeps people with GAD from doing everyday tasks. People with GAD have a higher risk of depression and other anxiety disorders than men with GAD. They also are more likely to have a family history of depression.

Panic disorder. Panic disorders are twice as common in women as in men.  People with panic disorder have sudden attacks of terror when there is no actual danger. Panic attacks may cause a sense of unreality, a fear of impending doom, or a fear of losing control. A fear of one’s own unexplained physical symptoms is also a sign of panic disorder. People having panic attacks sometimes believe they are having heart attacks, losing their minds, or dying.

Social phobia. Social phobia, also called social anxiety disorder, is diagnosed when people become very anxious and self-conscious in everyday social situations. People with social phobia have a strong fear of being watched and judged by others. They may get embarrassed easily and often have panic attack symptoms.

Specific phobia.  A specific phobia is an intense fear of something that poses little or no actual danger. Specific phobias could be fears of closed-in spaces, heights, water, objects, animals, or specific situations. People with specific phobias often find that facing, or even thinking about facing, the feared object or situation brings on a panic attack or severe anxiety.

Who gets anxiety disorders?

Anxiety disorders affect about 40 million American adults every year. Anxiety disorders also affect children and teens. About 8% of teens ages 13 to 18 have an anxiety disorder, with symptoms starting around age 6. Women are more than twice as likely as men to get an anxiety disorder in their lifetime.  Also, some types of anxiety disorders affect some women more than others:

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) affects more American Indian/Alaskan Native women than women of other races and ethnicities. GAD also affects more white women and Hispanic women than Asian or African-American women.

Social phobia and panic disorder affect more white women than women of other races and ethnicities.

What causes anxiety disorders?

Researchers think anxiety disorders are caused by a combination of factors, which may include:

Hormonal changes during the menstrual cycle

Genetics. Anxiety disorders may run in families.

Traumatic events. Experiencing abuse, an attack, or sexual assault can lead to serious health problems, including anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and depression. 

What are the signs and symptoms of an anxiety disorder?

People with anxiety disorders experience a combination of anxious thoughts or beliefs, physical symptoms, and changes in behavior, including avoiding everyday activities they used to do. Each anxiety disorder has different symptoms. They all involve a fear and dread about things that may happen now or in the future.

Physical symptoms may include:

Shortness of breath
Rapid heart rate
Upset stomach
Hot flashes

Physical symptoms of anxiety disorders often happen along with other mental or physical illnesses. This can cover up your anxiety symptoms or make them worse.

How are anxiety disorders diagnosed?

Your doctor or nurse will ask you questions about your symptoms and your medical history. Your doctor may also do a physical exam or other tests to rule out other health problems that could be causing your symptoms. Anxiety disorders are diagnosed when fear and dread of nonthreatening situations, events, places, or objects become excessive and are uncontrollable. Anxiety disorders are also diagnosed if the anxiety has lasted for at least six months and it interferes with social, work, family, or other aspects of daily life.

How are anxiety disorders treated?

Treatment for anxiety disorders depends on the type of anxiety disorder you have and your personal history of health problems, violence, or abuse.

Often, treatment depends on the severity and may include:
Counseling (called psychotherapy)
A combination of counseling and medicine
Alternative therapies such as meditation, physical activity and yoga, reading, listening to music, praying

If you think you might be living with an anxiety disorder, talk to your health care provider or a friend or family member about your feelings.

Beth Ewing, RN, MSN, CNM, WHNP-BC Parish Nurse


Beth Ewing