Everyone feels anxious from time to time. Yes, it’s uncomfortable, but anxiety can have a positive effect—like motivating you to do your best on a presentation. So when does it rise to the level of an anxiety disorder?
Anxiety disorders come in many shapes and sizes, according to UR Medicine behavioral health expert Dr. Michael Privitera. Anxiety can stand alone, or be prominent in other disorders like depression or dementia. In addition to affecting thoughts and behaviors, anxiety disorders usually have physical symptoms too.
Here are some common anxiety disorders and their symptoms:
- Recurrent, unexpected, panic attacks without a known cause. These can last for a few minutes or a few hours, and may include multiple physical symptoms (such as rapid heartbeat) or psychological symptoms (such as fear of dying).
- After the panic attack, the person worries for more than a month about having another one. This can lead to changes in behavior that are related to the attack, such as avoiding certain places for fear of having another one.
- Along with panic attacks, people with panic disorder often develop agoraphobia, another anxiety disorder. This is a fear and avoidance of places that make the person feel trapped and helpless, usually in a public place like in a crowd or on a bridge. As a result, they often experience a fear of leaving the house.
- There are two types of phobias, specific and social. Specific phobias are the fear of well-defined objects or situations, like dogs or flying in airplanes. Social phobias are distressing or disabling fears of social or performance situations.
- While some people are relatively untroubled by their phobias, others are completely disabled by them.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
- People with OCD can suffer from either obsessions or compulsions, but usually they experience both. Obsessions are recurrent mental activities, such as thoughts, impulses, or images related to real life problems (as opposed to being delusions). Typical obsessions include fear of contamination or a need for order or symmetry. Compulsions are basically obsessions in action. They are repetitive behaviors (like hand-washing) or mental acts (like counting).
- People with OCD spend more than one hour a day focusing on their obsessions or compulsions, and the obsessions and compulsions cause them significant distress. Their ability to function is often limited by these obsessions and compulsions. The most severe forms of OCD can lead to a total inability to function.
There are numerous other anxiety disorders, and well over 100 symptoms that can indicate the presence of an anxiety disorder. We believe disorders are caused by a combination of biological, psychological, and social factors. There are a variety of treatments specific to each disorder, and these treatments are often combined. Some examples include gradual exposure to stimulus, psychotherapy, medications and—in the most extreme cases—surgery.
If you think you, or someone you care about, may be experiencing an anxiety disorder, it’s important to learn as much as you can and consult a mental health professional.
For more information about anxiety disorders, and to connect with physicians who treat them, click here.
Michael R. Privitera, M.D., is a professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Rochester and a consultant with UR Medicine’s Mood and Anxiety Disorder Consultation Clinic.