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Anxiety, part 1: Symptoms, types, and causes

Reviewed by Robert Bogenberger

Blurred image of city buildings with people walking hurriedly in the foreground

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is a state of worry or apprehension. In small doses, it can be a healthy response to stress by giving us an extra push to study for an exam or make a great impression on a first date. It’s our body’s way of helping us think about and prepare for the future.

Too much anxiety, though, can harm us. Anxiety disorders develop when anxious feelings grow too strong or last too long. Instead of giving us a temporary boost, anxiety disorders can drag us into overwhelming worry and fear, making it hard for us to function.

Fear vs. anxiety

We often use the words “fear” and “anxiety” interchangeably, but they refer to slightly different emotional experiences. We feel fear in response to something specific that we can see in the present moment, whether it’s an object, situation, or circumstance. With fear, the threat is immediate and known.

We feel anxiety in response to something we’re anticipating: a future threat that’s unknown or vague, such as worries about our health, family, or future.

Stress vs. anxiety

We all experience stress about both exciting and challenging aspects of our lives. Stress is our body’s response to a specific challenge or struggle, and it usually goes away after the event or situation is over. Anxiety, though, may or may not be tied to something specific. And unlike stress, it sticks around.

While they’re different experiences, stress and anxiety often go hand in hand, and stressful situations can trigger anxiety.

Depression vs. anxiety

Our awareness and understanding of anxiety and depression have increased dramatically in recent years. The two terms also aren’t interchangeable, though. Anxiety disorders and depression are different mental health conditions. They share some symptoms—and you can be diagnosed with both at once—but it’s important to understand their differences.

Both types of disorder involve overwhelming feelings that can seem permanent. But their emotional foundations are different. Fear and worry are at the heart of anxiety disorders, while hopelessness and sadness are at the heart of depression.

Anxiety signs and symptoms

Physical symptoms of anxiety

  • Rapid heart rate and/or heart palpitations
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Dry mouth
  • Shakiness or dizziness
  • Muscle tension
  • Sweating
  • Nausea or gastrointestinal problems
  • Insomnia
  • Restlessness

Mental symptoms of anxiety

  • Uncontrollable worry (also called “rumination”)
  • Feelings of dread or doom
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Irritability
  • Avoidance of triggers (people, places, things, or situations) that worsen your anxiety symptoms

Types of anxiety

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)

If you have GAD, you struggle with constant worry for at least half the year, mainly about ordinary parts of life. Instead of having a specific focus for your anxiety, you feel anxious about many things at once—work, school, relationships, money, health. Anxiety may seem to seep into every aspect of your life.

Panic disorder

If you have panic disorder, you have panic attacks: short episodes of excessive anxiety and fear that come and go quickly but are often hard to shake. You may have additional anxiety about when the next panic attack will strike.

Symptoms of a panic attack include:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Heart palpitations
  • Sweating
  • Shaking
  • Lightheadedness
  • Dread
  • Feeling a loss of control

Phobias

A phobia is a kind of anxiety disorder that causes specific, persistent anxiety. With a phobia, you have excessive or irrational fears about a specific person, place, thing, or situation. You’ll often go out of your way to avoid the cause of your fear, using methods that disrupt your daily life.

Common phobias include:

  • Agoraphobia: Fear of leaving your home, often centered around being trapped in crowds or public places
  • Social anxiety (or “social phobia”): Fear of embarrassment or judgment in social situations
  • Separation anxiety: Fear of being separated from a parent or parental figure
  • Health anxiety: Fear of illness or poor health (formerly called “hypochondria”)
  • Selective mutism: A child’s fear of speaking even when they have the skills to do so
  • Specific phobia: Intense fear about a specific object or situation (like heights, the sight of blood, animals, or flying)

What causes anxiety?

The causes of anxiety can be divided into two categories: “risk factors” and “triggers.” Risk factors increase your likelihood of developing an anxiety disorder, and triggers contribute to specific episodes of anxiety or panic.

Risk factors for anxiety

  • Genetics: If a relative has been diagnosed with anxiety, you’re more likely to develop an anxiety disorder as well.
  • Trauma: Trauma can affect us physically and psychologically. You may suffer from panic attacks or other forms of anxiety after experiencing trauma.
  • Substance abuse: The relationship between anxiety and substance abuse is a cycle. Increased substance abuse can cause anxiety, and anxiety disorder symptoms may push people toward substance abuse as a coping mechanism.
  • Other health conditions: Medical conditions like hyperthyroidism and asthma can have similar symptoms to anxiety and panic. This may increase your likelihood for an anxiety disorder. In addition, dealing with a serious health condition can be stressful or even traumatic, increasing your risk for anxiety.

What triggers anxiety?

  1. Stress: You may develop an anxiety disorder in response to ongoing high levels of stress in any area of your life: financial, professional, or relational.
  2. Caffeine: Because it’s a stimulant, caffeine can speed up your heart rate and cause shakiness, insomnia, and gastrointestinal problems. This may worsen anxiety symptoms and trigger anxiety or panic.
  3. Not eating regularly or not eating enough: Skipping meals or restricting your food intake can cause lightheadedness, shakiness, and gastrointestinal problems, contributing to anxiety symptoms.
  4. Social events: If you suffer from social anxiety or agoraphobia, social situations may trigger a panic attack.
  5. Lack of sleep or trouble sleeping (insomnia): Not getting enough sleep can increase your stress levels and worsen anxiety symptoms like irritability, difficulty concentrating, and muscle tension.
  6. Life transitions: Even happy transitions like having a baby, starting a new job, or starting a new relationship can bring stress and trigger your anxiety.
  7. Health problems: Health issues can cause a great deal of stress, which can trigger anxiety. If a loved one suffers from a health problem, your anxiety may increase as well.

Get help now

If you’re struggling with anxiety, you’re not alone. There are many different ways to find support. Browse our directory to find a specialist in your area—or learn how to choose a therapist who’s right for you.

If you’re in crisis, help is available now. For free, confidential 24/7 support, please call the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 or 1-800-273-TALK (8255),or text HOME to 741741.

Read Part 2 of this article to learn more about how anxiety is diagnosed and treated.

About the author

The editorial team at therapist.com works with the world’s leading clinical experts to bring you accessible, insightful information about mental health topics and trends.

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