Anxiety: Definition, Symptoms, Causes & Treatments

Reviewed by therapist.com Team

What Is Anxiety?

Anxiety is a natural human emotion characterized by worry, apprehension, or fear. It can be a healthy, expected response to stress.

In small doses, anxiety can give us that extra push to study for an exam or make a great impression on a first date. It’s our body’s way of getting us to think about and prepare for the future.

Too much anxiety, though, can paralyze us. Anxiety disorders develop when those anxious feelings become permanent and/or excessive. Instead of giving us a temporary boost, anxiety disorders drag us into a world of overwhelming worry and fear, severely limiting our ability to lead a normal life.

Fear vs. Anxiety

Although many people use the terms “fear” and “anxiety” interchangeably, they actually refer to slightly different emotional experiences. Fear is an emotion that arises in reference to some specific and observable object, situation, or circumstance. In the case of fear, the threat is immediate and known, as in the case of specific phobias.

In contrast, anxiety occurs in response to some anticipated future threat that is unknown, undefined, or vague in nature. For example, we experience anxiety in response to more global worries about our health, our family, or our future.

Therefore, the difference between fear and anxiety lies in the nature and immediacy of the threat. Fear arises in response to some tangible cue in the present moment, whereas anxiety occurs in response to a diffuse threat that is more future oriented in nature.

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. Anxiety, meanwhile, may or may not be tied to something specific.

Additionally, stress dissipates after the event or situation in question is over. For example, no one feels the stress of wedding planning five years into their marriage. Anxiety, on the other hand, sticks around.

Still, it’s important to recognize that stress and anxiety often go hand in hand. Stressful situations frequently trigger the experience of anxiety.

Depression vs. Anxiety

Our culture’s awareness and acceptance of anxiety and depression have increased dramatically in recent years. However, the two terms are not interchangeable. Anxiety and depression are two different mental health disorders, and while they have some overlapping symptoms (and it’s possible to be diagnosed with both conditions simultaneously), it’s important to understand their differences.

Anxiety and depression both deal with overwhelming, seemingly permanent feelings. However, the foundations of these emotions are different. Fear and worry are at the heart of anxiety, 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/dizziness
  • Muscle tension
  • Sweating
  • Nausea/gastrointestinal problems
  • Insomnia
  • Restlessness

Mental Symptoms of Anxiety

  • Uncontrollable worry (rumination)
  • Feelings of dread or doom
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Irritability
  • Avoidance of triggers (people, places, things, or situations) that seem to cause your anxiety symptoms to worsen

Types of Anxiety

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

People with GAD struggle with constant worry at least half the year, mainly about ordinary parts of life. Instead of their anxiety having a specific focus, people with GAD are anxious about many things at once. Whether it’s work, school, relationships, money, or health, anxiety seems to permeate every aspect of life for people with GAD.

Panic Disorder

People with a panic disorder suffer from panic attacks. These short episodes of excessive anxiety and fear come and go quickly, but they are often hard to shake. This leads to 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

Specific Phobias

Phobias fall under the classification of anxiety disorders. These fears are focused on a specific person, place, thing, or situation. Whereas stress causes specific anxiety that dissipates with time, phobias cause specific anxiety that sticks around.

People with phobias will often go out of their way to avoid the cause of their fear, using methods that ultimately interfere with their daily life in excessive or irrational ways. Common phobias include:

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

What Causes Anxiety?

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

Risk Factors of Anxiety

  • Genetics: If someone in your family has been diagnosed with anxiety, you are more likely to develop an anxiety disorder as well.
  • Biochemistry: Chemical imbalances in the brain can result in an anxiety disorder.
  • Trauma: Trauma can affect us physically and psychologically. It’s common to suffer from panic attacks or other forms of anxiety after experiencing a trauma.
  • Substance abuse: The relationship between anxiety and substance abuse is a terrible cycle. Increased substance abuse can cause anxiety, and symptoms of an anxiety disorder 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. Additionally, dealing with a serious health condition may result in increased stress or even trauma, also increasing your risk for anxiety.

What Triggers Anxiety?

  1. Stress: You may develop an anxiety disorder in response to continuously high levels of stress in any area of your life (financial, professional, relational).
  2. Caffeine: Because of its stimulating effects, caffeine can trigger unwanted physical symptoms, such as rapid heart rate, shakiness, insomnia, and gastrointestinal problems, which can worsen anxiety symptoms and trigger anxiety or panic.
  3. Lack of food/not eating regularly: Skipping meals or restricting your food intake can contribute to symptoms of anxiety, including lightheadedness, shakiness, and gastrointestinal problems.
  4. Social events: If you suffer from social anxiety or certain phobias like agoraphobia, social situations may trigger a panic attack.
  5. Lack of sleep/trouble sleeping (insomnia): Not getting enough sleep may increase your stress levels and worsen anxiety symptoms, including difficulty concentrating, irritability, and muscle tension.
  6. Life transitions: Even happy transitions, such as having a baby, starting a new job, or starting a new relationship, can result in undue stress and trigger your anxiety.
  7. Health problems: Problems with your health can cause massive amounts of stress, which can trigger anxiety. If a loved one is suffering from a health problem, you may also experience an increase in anxious feelings.

How Do I Know If I Have Anxiety?

Everyone experiences the feeling of anxiety at some point in their life. However, if you think you may have an anxiety disorder, there are steps you can take to know for certain:

  1. Keep track of your symptoms: When you feel anxious, write down what you’re experiencing. Try to pinpoint the cause of your feelings. Even if that cause is something ordinary, it’s helpful to write it down. By keeping track of your symptoms and triggers, you can capture crucial information that may help a medical professional give you a more accurate diagnosis.
  2. Ask your doctor: An online anxiety quiz won’t give you an accurate assessment of your mental health. Only a medical professional can give you a true diagnosis. Schedule an appointment with your primary care physician (PCP) and share your concerns with them.
  3. See a therapist: Your doctor can give you a referral to a therapist, or you can seek one out on your own. A therapist can give you a professional diagnosis and offer treatment for your anxiety disorder. Click here to find anxiety therapists near you.

It’s not uncommon to be diagnosed with another disorder alongside anxiety. In fact, you may develop anxiety in response to trauma or other mental health disorders. Disorders related to anxiety include:

How to Treat Anxiety

Most long-term anxiety treatment plans consist of medication, psychotherapy (also known as talk therapy), or some combination of both. Additionally, there are steps you can take in the moment to treat acute anxiety symptoms or even a panic attack.

3 Types of Psychotherapy for Anxiety

1. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)  is the most common, most successful form of talk therapy for anxiety disorders.

CBT helps people with anxiety identify and challenge unhelpful thoughts or beliefs that feed their anxious behavior so they can develop healthier patterns of thinking. This change in thinking (cognition) ultimately leads to a change in how you live your life (behavior).

2. Exposure Therapy

Exposure therapy is another method used to treat various phobias and anxiety disorders. During exposure therapy, you confront your fear in one of four ways:

  1. In vivo (direct, physical) exposure
  2. Imaginary exposure
  3. Virtual exposure
  4. Interoceptive (sensation-based) exposure

The key to exposure therapy is that it is a safe experience guided by your therapist. Many people mistakenly view exposure therapy as a cruel form of therapy that relies on tricks or deceit to put a person with anxiety in their feared situation. This is not the case.

The goal of exposure therapy is not to force the client into a situation so they can “get over it” quickly but to gradually expose them to their fears so they can learn that their fears are misplaced. With time and repeated exposure, people are able to stop avoiding their fears and increase their quality of life.

3. Mindfulness

Your therapist may teach you mindfulness techniques alongside other forms of talk therapy to help reduce your anxiety symptoms. Mindfulness is especially useful in counteracting worry thoughts because it teaches you to nonjudgmentally focus on the current moment, which prevents you from ruminating about the past or worrying about the future. With mindfulness, you engage any of your physical senses—sight, smell, touch, sound, or taste— to help you calm your mind.

Anxiety Disorder Medications

Many people who struggle with anxiety disorders are treated successfully with certain kinds of anxiety medications. These medications can address chemical imbalances in the brain that may be contributing to the anxiety disorder. They can also lessen the intensity of certain anxiety symptoms.

Your anxiety medication will likely fall into one of two categories:

  1. Short-term relief of current symptoms (benzodiazepines, sedatives, beta blockers, etc.)
  2. Long-term symptom management (antidepressants, buspirone, etc.)

Feeling Anxious? How to Treat Anxiety and Panic in 5 Easy Steps

  1. Breathe deeply: Take a deep breath in. Slowly let it out. You may find it helpful to count the length of your breaths, such as 4 seconds of inhalation, 4 seconds of holding, and 8 seconds of exhalation.
  2. Limit stimuli: Close your eyes. Find a quiet place.
  3. Practice mindfulness: Check in with your five senses. Clear your mind, and allow yourself to notice what you are feeling without judgment. Meditate. Introduce soothing sensations, such as relaxing smells or soft candlelight.
  4. Go for a walk: Our bodies respond positively to exercise and motion as well as being in nature. If you can, go for a walk outside.
  5. Tell a friend: Often, panic attacks leave us feeling scared and alone. Talking with a friend or loved one can help you remember what’s true: You’re not alone, and you are loved.

Find Help Now

If you’re struggling with anxiety, you’re not alone. Help is available now. There are many different ways you can seek treatment for anxiety.

1. Find an Anxiety Therapist Near You

Click here to browse therapists who specialize in anxiety disorders in your area. You can also click here to learn how to choose a therapist that’s right for you.

2. Need Help Now? Call or Text a Helpline

If you’re in crisis, help is available now:

3. Find Anxiety Help Online

There are many online resources to help you manage your anxiety. Anxiety apps are a great short-term option if professional help is not available to you at this time. Popular apps that can help you with your anxiety include: