Anxiety is a mental health condition that is typically associated with worry, fear, difficulty concentrating, as well as physical symptoms like nausea, shaking, and muscle tenseness. There are multiple types of anxiety disorder, and your symptoms will differ based on what type of anxiety you have.
It might feel like your anxiety symptoms control your life, whether that means fear of a panic attack, avoiding people due to social anxiety, or just a constant feeling of worry and agitation. Understanding the symptoms of your specific type of anxiety can help you seek the most appropriate treatment, and improve your quality of life.
What Is Anxiety?
Anxiety is described by the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” (DSM-5) as anticipation of a future threat. Everyone feels anxious at one point or another, but not everyone experiences an anxiety disorder.
There are multiple types of anxiety disorder, including generalized anxiety, social anxiety, and more. These conditions should not be confused with day-to-day worrying.
It’s normal to be anxious about important events, like a job interview, a performance, a first date, a big exam, childbirth, or any number of life moments. Sometimes, however, this normal, healthy worrying gets out of control and becomes an anxiety disorder.
Anxiety disorders are diagnosable mental health conditions characterized by excessive fear, anxiety, and related behavioral changes that may worsen over time. This fear manifests as both physical and mental symptoms, and impacts daily activities such as school, work, leisure, and relationships.
Everyone experiences anxiety differently, but there is usually a combination of physical, psychological, and social symptoms. The exact symptom profile will differ based on individual circumstances, specific type of anxiety disorder, and personal triggers.
Some overarching symptoms of anxiety disorders include:
- Excessive fear and anxiety
- Dry mouth
- Muscle tension
- Irregular heartbeat
- Difficulty sleeping
- Cautious, avoidant behavior
- Panic attacks
Keep in mind that this is not an exhaustive list of symptoms, because each type of anxiety disorder has its own symptom profile according to the DSM-5.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder
People with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) experience excessive and persistent worry, fear, and anxiety that is hard to control, and is disproportionate to the situation. GAD can be diagnosed when these symptoms occur for the majority of days over at least six months.
Symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder include:
- Anxiety or worry
- Increased fatigue
- Muscle tension, soreness, and ache
- Difficulty sleeping
Adults must experience a minimum of three of the above symptoms, in addition to anxiety or worry, to be diagnosed with GAD. Children only need one of the above symptoms, in addition to anxiety or worry, for a diagnosis.
Social Anxiety Disorder
Social anxiety disorder, which was previously called social phobia, is characterized by excessive fear of social and performance situations. It is more than just shyness. People with social anxiety disorder feel intense anxiety that may lead to avoidant behaviors around meeting new people, maintaining relationships, speaking in front of others, eating in public, and more.
Symptoms of social anxiety disorder include:
- Disproportionate fear and anxiety in one or more social situations
- Rapid heart rate
- The feeling of “mind going blank”
- Self-judgment and self-consciousness
- Avoiding social situations, or experiencing intense fear during them
- Impairment in social, occupational, and other areas of functioning
People can either experience general social anxiety disorder, or performance-specific social anxiety disorder (such as when speaking or performing in front of an audience).
Social anxiety disorder can look different in children. Notably, for children the anxiety must occur in peer situations, and not just with adults. Symptoms can manifest as tantrums, freezing, crying, clinging, and refusal to speak.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) involves recurring, unwanted thoughts that lead to specific and repeatable actions, which interfere with daily life. OCD is no longer classed as an anxiety disorder as of the DSM-5, but its symptoms cause anxiety. For that reason, professionals associate OCD with anxiety disorders.
Symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder include:
- Obsessions: Thoughts and worries that are recognized as excessive but won’t stop. Obsessions commonly include a fear of germs, fear of losing something, aggressive or taboo thoughts, desire for symmetry or order, and more.
- Compulsions: Repeatable behaviors performed to relieve anxiety and typically related to the obsessions. Compulsions commonly include counting, excessive cleaning or hand washing, overly precise ordering and arranging, repeated checking, and more.
- Minimum one hour per day spent on obsessions and compulsions
OCD typically emerges either in childhood or young adulthood, and will occur earlier in boys than girls.
Panic disorder is a mental health condition that involves recurrent and unexpected panic attacks. A panic attack is an episode of extreme fear and anxiety, which some people describe as feeling like a heart attack.
Symptoms of a panic attack include:
- Shortness of breath
- Heart palpitations and rapid heart rate
- Feeling smothered or choked
- Feelings of impending doom or death
- Chest pain
Panic attacks by themselves are not a mental health condition. They occur in many anxiety disorders, including panic disorder.
Someone who has panic disorder will experience repeated panic attacks, intense anxiety around future panic attacks, and avoidant behaviors around situations that could induce a panic attack.
To be diagnosed with panic disorder, at least one panic attack must be followed by a month-long period of avoidant behaviors. For example, this could mean not going to the grocery store for months because you experienced a panic attack there.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a type of anxiety disorder the emerges after a person either directly experiences or witnesses a traumatic event such as serious injury, combat, sexual violence, natural disaster, or actual or threatened death. Military personnel, first responders, and police officers are at increased risk of PTSD, but anyone can have PTSD.
Symptoms of PTSD include:
- Detachment from others
- Hyper vigilance
- Difficulty concentrating
- Difficulty sleeping
- Exaggerated startle response
- Difficulty remembering the traumatic event
- Negative beliefs about oneself or the world
- Persistent negative emotions such as fear, horror, and guilt
- Persistent inability to feel positive emotions such as happiness and satisfaction
- Self-destructive behaviors
- Avoidance of triggers associated with the traumatic event
- Intrusive symptoms, such as recurrent and involuntary memories, distressing dreams, dissociative reactions or flashbacks, psychological distress when exposed to triggers.
Children can experience PTSD differently from adults, due to developmental differences. The DSM-5 categorizes children age 6 and younger as having PTSD in preschool children. Instead of acting distressed by the traumatic event or intrusive symptoms, some children may appear excitable or “over-bright.”
Other Anxiety Disorders
There are additional anxiety disorders besides those listed above. Each of these anxiety disorders has a unique symptom and diagnostic profile that is detailed in the DSM-5.
- Separation anxiety disorder
- Specific phobia
- Selective mutism in children
- Substance/medication-induced anxiety disorder
- Anxiety disorder due to another medical condition
Anxiety symptoms can change and worsen over time if left untreated. Due to fear of symptoms or anxiety attacks, you may start avoiding situations that were previously meaningful or brought you joy. This can lead to social isolation.
People who have an anxiety disorder also may develop depression, substance-use disorder, and even digestive issues such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
What Is an Anxiety Attack?
“Anxiety attack” is not an official medical term, but it is often used to describe a panic attack. A panic attack is a period of intense, uncontrollable anxiety that may result in shortness of breath, shaking, chest pain, and feelings of doom.
Anxiety attacks are all-consuming and frightening, and sometimes mistaken for heart attacks. They are a primary symptom of panic disorder, but may occur in any anxiety disorder.
When to See a Doctor
Worry is a normal part of life, but when your worry becomes ongoing and disproportionate to the situation, it may be time to see a doctor.
People with anxiety disorders experience fear and anxiety that impairs daily functioning. This might appear as avoiding going out in public, not returning phone calls or meeting up with friends, canceling performances or presentations, persistent nausea, changes in sleep, and more.
If you feel that your anxiety is preventing you from living a full life, speak to your doctor.
If you or a loved one are struggling with anxiety, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.
For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.
A Word from Verywell
Anxiety can be a disabling condition that affects all areas of your life, from how you think about yourself, to your relationships, to physical changes. Know that there is help available for anxiety.
Anxiety is treatable, and many people are able to work through their anxiety symptoms through personalized treatment plans that might involve medication, therapy, lifestyle changes, and healthy coping mechanisms.