Updated: Apr 16
The word “anxiety” has come to mean many different things in today’s culture. You may say jokingly (or not so jokingly!) something like “thinking about that makes me anxious!” without having a full understanding of what it is really like to have anxiety on a day-in, day-out basis. Or maybe you do know what anxiety really looks like because you’ve had issues with anxiety for years. And perhaps you know that there are different types of anxiety disorders that can be diagnosed by a professional, but you’re not sure what the difference between each “disorder” is. And really, what is considered a disorder anyways?
Who Defines Anxiety As A Disorder
The Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders (currently Edition 5), published by the American Psychiatric Association (2013), is widely accepted as the authority of describing, diagnosing, and organizing “mental disorders” in the United States. A mental disorder is any type of functional mental impairment that is considered outside the norms of the population and that can be described by a set of usual symptoms that the person experiences. For example, to meet the criteria to be diagnosed for a specific mental disorder, you might need to meet x out of y number of different symptoms. To be diagnosed with Major Depression, you need to meet 5 out of 8 symptoms of depression most days over a minimum of a 2-week period. The symptoms must also cause clinically significant impairment in at least one of five different areas of functioning such as socially, at work, at school, etc.
Sometimes there are varying severities of a mental disorder, which also includes substance use disorders. Regarding alcohol abuse, you can have either a mild, moderate, or severe type of Alcohol Use Disorder. If you go to a doctor, psychiatrist, psychologist or therapist, he or she may ask you a series of questions designed to obtain information about your symptoms, length of time you’ve had the symptoms, severity of the symptoms, and how the symptoms impact your life in order to provide you with an accurate diagnosis. Why is an accurate diagnosis so important? Labels are can sometimes box you in, but mental health professionals often use a diagnosis as a place to start determining what type of treatment will be the most effective for you. If we don’t know what’s going on, how can we hope to treat it effectively?
Back to Anxiety…
Ok, now you know who can diagnose a disorder, where the diagnoses are listed and come from, and why mental health professionals diagnose. Next let’s get into the different types of anxiety disorders. Anxiety is our reaction(s) to situations that our brain perceives as dangerous and threatening. Notice that I didn’t say situations that actually ARE dangerous and threatening. Certainly, there are many dangerous situations that we may react immediately to, however anxiety is more about the ongoing or lasting reactions that we have to situations. So, in the moment you will likely experience intense anxiety if you are truly threatened, and that is a very normal and understandable reaction for that situation. Anxiety refers to the lasting mental distress that our brains create based on imagined danger or threat.
Types of Anxiety Disorders
Under the general category of anxiety disorders, there are multiple different anxiety disorders that can be diagnosed for adults and for children. This article will focus on the most common types of anxiety disorders prevalent in adults in the US. Anxiety disorders can be general and affect many different areas of your life, or they can be concentrated on just one issue or situation. Anxiety disorders can be a result of a medical diagnosis or caused by substance use, or a result of trauma or traumatic events. Anxiety can occur after having a baby or when you’re on an airplane. It can be acute and intense, such as panic, or just there in your mind every day. Anxiety can have a genetic component and/or be caused by the environment. Every different type of anxiety disorder has clear criteria and symptoms which one must meet prior to being diagnosed.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder
One of the most common anxiety disorders is Generalized Anxiety Disorder, or GAD. GAD affects 3.1% of the adult US population, and women are twice as likely to have GAD as men. In my therapy sessions, GAD is probably the most prevalent diagnosis or issue that my clients come to me with. GAD occurs when someone has trouble controlling their worry on more days than not, for at least 6 months. Different symptoms of GAD can include feeling nervous, irritable or edgy, with increased heart rate, difficulty concentrating, and trouble sleeping. In addition, feeling a sense of impending doom or danger, hyperventilating and other physical symptoms, and having GI issues can be signs of GAD. Your worry may be general or about a number of different things or stressors. Even if you cannot define what you have as “anxiety”, other people may tell you that “you worry too much”, or to "just stop worrying about it”.
Social Anxiety Disorder
Social Anxiety Disorder is another popular type of anxiety disorder. Shockingly, about 6.8% of the adult US population has social anxiety disorder, and both men and women are diagnosed with this equally. This is an incredibly large number of adults who have this disorder, and it is one of the least common types of anxiety that is talked about in popular culture or your daily life. Social Anxiety Disorder is, you guessed it, fear or anxiety about being in social situations. Specifically, it is “intense” anxiety or fear of being judged, negatively evaluated, or rejected in a social situation. Most people with social anxiety disorder then tend to avoid groups or social situations because of their intense reactions to the perceived threat of being social. Physical symptoms such as racing heart, shortness of breath, or nausea may occur in social situations, to the point of bringing on a full-blown panic attack.
Speaking of panic attacks, Panic Disorder affects 2.7% of the adult US population and again, women are twice as likely as men to have Panic Disorder. To be diagnosed with Panic Disorder, panic attacks must happen seemingly randomly and out of the blue, and thus the person is extremely fearful of having another panic attack. Panic Disorder can cause you to miss important appointments, impact your personal and social relationships, and cause issues in school and at work. Panic attacks are sudden onsets of intense fear or distress that reaches a peak within minutes and includes physical or body symptoms. These physical symptoms include trembling or shaking, sweating or chills, feeling dizzy or faint, numbing, and a fear of “going crazy” or of dying. Panic attacks are basically a very acute form of regular anxiety, and many of my clients liken it to feeling like they are having a heart attack.
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, affects 3.5% of the population, with women more likely than men to be diagnosed with PTSD. PTSD occurs because you have experienced, been exposed to, or witnessed trauma or traumatic events. Different traumas and traumatic events can include war, a natural disaster, a serious accident, sudden death of a loved one, violent personal assault such as rape, neglect or abuse as a child (or adult), difficult medical procedures, or other life-threatening events. Not everyone who has a history of trauma goes on to develop PTSD, but it can be an extremely debilitating condition of those who do. PTSD symptoms include having ongoing nightmares or flashbacks in which one re-experiences the event, becoming emotionally numb and avoiding things that remind you of the trauma, or difficulty sleeping, concentrating, and easily irritated/angry. These symptoms that you experience cause you significant issues in different areas of your life such as work, in relationships, or socially.
Some types of anxiety are a result of your reaction to a specific type of trigger. If you have anxiety related to a specific phobia, you have an intense or irrational fear of something that holds little to no danger to you. Specific phobias impact 8.7% of the adult population, with women twice as likely to be affected as men. Many people who have specific phobias know logically that your fears are irrational, but even thinking about the specific object or trigger brings up intense anxiety reactions. Some categories of specific phobias include situations, such as being in a small, enclosed space like elevators; nature, such as thunderstorms; medical issues such as blood or injury; and animals, such as snakes or spiders. Your anxiety, when you think about or are in a situation that triggers your specific phobia anxiety, can impact your daily routine in your avoidance of situations or triggers.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, or OCD, affects 1.2% of the adult US population, with more women than men affected. However, OCD is one of the most common terms used in everyday life when referring to anxiety. Just because you are neat, organized, and like things in done in a certain way doesn’t necessarily mean that you have OCD. OCD includes both obsessions, which are repetitive thoughts that you have, or compulsions, which is when you feel the need to perform certain routines repetitively. Your thoughts or needs disrupt your life with the amount of time spent thinking or performing the behaviors, and the thoughts or compulsions are unwanted and intrusive. Examples include concerns about contamination, cleanliness, or the need for order, along with checking/
rechecking things, cleaning, or arranging. OCD can become chronic and impact your school, work, or social life if left untreated.
If you have anxiety, it is common to have another, or co-occurring, disorder also. You may have a combination of anxiety and depression. When one disorder feels out of control or like it’s overtaking you, you may feel that way about the other disorder also. For example, when anxiety is untreated and starts significantly impacting your life, you may also become depressed and your mood is impacted. Or perhaps you have anxiety and you start trying to self-medicate through the use of alcohol or drugs, in order to help calm yourself down or escape your anxiety. You start to use alcohol or drugs more and more to the point where you end up with a substance abuse-related disorder on top of your anxiety. While co-occurring disorders are more difficult to treat, they are also very common.
How to Treat Anxiety Disorders
Luckily, anxiety disorders are very treatable. There are several different options for treatment for you depending on the type and severity of your anxiety disorder. Here are some good options to get you started for anxiety treatment:
Talk to a trusted friend or family member about your anxiety
Seek consultation from your Doctor for anxiety treatment recommendations
Get a referral or recommendation for anxiety counseling
Ask about anxiety medications for treatment of chronic or acute anxiety symptoms
Search online for anxiety treatment options in your area
Consider individual or group therapy for anxiety from a licensed therapist
Depending on the type of your anxiety, there are evidence-based treatment options for your symptoms and to identify the root cause of your anxiety. For example, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) has been shown through studies and research to be the most effective treatment for Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Exposure and Response Prevention is the most effective treatment for OCD. Both these treatments for anxiety are time-limited and evidence-based, and can be found commonly with counselors and therapists who specialize in treating anxiety disorders.
Hopefully by now you have a solid idea of the most common types of anxiety disorders, what the symptoms of each are, and how to go about getting treatment. Even when things calm down in your life, you may still be experiencing overwhelming thoughts or avoiding certain situations. Anxiety affects your whole body, your entire being. The licensed therapists at Catalyss Counseling can help you make the change you want to see in your life regarding anxiety through our Anxiety Treatment Program. We provide individual and group anxiety counseling so that you can Rediscover Your Everyday Joy. If you’re interested in a free phone consultation regarding our anxiety treatment, contact us here (add in link to consultation scheduler).
Anxiety and Depression Association of America (adaa.org)
American Psychiatric Association: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association, 2013.
How We Can Help
We are currently offering a free anxiety treatment guide! Get all of your questions answered about how catalyss counseling treats anxiety.
Other Therapy Services Available at Catalyss Counseling:
Here at Catalyss Counseling, we want to meet all of your counseling needs in the Denver area. Our supportive therapists provide depression counseling, therapy for caregiver stress, grief and loss therapy, stress management counseling and more. We also have specialists in trauma and PTSD, women's issues, pregnancy and postpartum depression or anxiety, pregnancy loss and miscarriage, and birth trauma. For therapists, we can also provide clinical supervision! We look forward to connecting with you to help support your journey today.
Shannon Heers is a psychotherapist, clinical supervisor, guest blogger, and owner of Catalyss Counseling in Englewood, CO. Shannon helps adults in professional careers manage anxiety, depression, work-life balance, and grief and loss. Follow Catalyss Counseling on LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram.