- Anxiety disorders occur when anxiety becomes very distressing and impacts on day-to-day-life.
- Anxiety disorders include generalised anxiety disorder, panic disorder (panic attacks) and social anxiety disorder.
- People living with anxiety disorders can benefit from self-care strategies, psychological therapies, and support in the community.
- It is possible to live a full and meaningful life even if a person experiences an anxiety disorder.
About anxiety disorders
Anxiety is an important emotional and physical experience that can protect us from harm. An anxiety disorder is a mental health condition involving longer-term fear and worry that is out of proportion to a situation, as well as unpleasant physical experiences.
Anxiety disorders can take several forms. Common to all of these is anxiety so distressing it can interfere with day-to-day life.
A person may experience more than one anxiety disorder. Some people may also experience anxiety disorders in combination with other mental health issues, such as depression, alcohol or drug use, eating disorders, trauma-related disorders, or obsessive and compulsive disorders.
Symptoms of anxiety disorders
Symptoms of anxiety disorders usually start in childhood or as a teenager. A person with an anxiety disorder will feel distressed a lot of the time, even if there seems to be no obvious reason. Anxiety can be so severe it is immobilising.
Common symptoms of anxiety include worrying that is difficulty to control, fearing uncertainty, unpleasant physical symptoms (like a pounding heart or difficulty breathing), avoiding feared situations, and panic attacks (1).
To be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, a person needs to experience intense anxiety on an ongoing basis, usually for six months or longer. There are several types of anxiety disorders (1). These include:
- Generalised anxiety disorder: Persistent, excessive or unrealistic worries about a range of situations, with anxiety happening more days than not.
- Social anxiety disorder (a.k.a. social phobia): intense anxiety about social situations, where a person fears judgment by others.
- Panic disorder: repeated and unexpected panic attacks, and ongoing worry about the risk of future panic attacks (for at least 1 month after a panic attack).
- Specific phobia: an intense anxiety about specific objects or situations that are rare, or have little or no danger. People with phobias will also avoid the feared object or situation.
- Agoraphobia: anxiety about situations such as public transport, open spaces, enclosed spaces, crowds, or being outside of the home alone.
Causes of anxiety disorders
Anxiety disorders are thought to be caused by a combination of factors. These include genetics, brain chemistry, personality traits, and experiences – such as going through stressful life events (2).
How common are anxiety disorders?
Anxiety disorders are among the most common mental health issues. One study found that between 4-25% of adults worldwide experience an anxiety disorder. They are most common in women, young adults, and people with chronic diseases (3).
Every year, around 17% of adult Australians experience an anxiety disorder (4).
Managing life with anxiety
There are strategies that can help people manage the challenging thoughts and physical sensations of anxiety (5):
- Understanding more about anxiety, why it has come up and what makes it better or worse
- Learning strategies to manage unhelpful thoughts, and developing mindfulness skills.
- Learning strategies to calm the body and mind, such as relaxation and breathing training.
- Looking after physical health through healthy eating, exercise and sleeping well.
- Managing panic attacks through mindfulness, deep breathing, and gradual exposure to feared situations.
Treatment and support for anxiety disorders
Treatment can help manage, reduce, or even eliminate the symptoms of anxiety disorders.
It’s a good idea to first talk to a GP. A GP can provide information and refer on to other health professionals or support services. They can also explore if there are any health conditions contributing to the anxiety.
Treatment often involves working with a mental health professional such as a psychologist, counsellor, or psychiatrist. Treatment can have a range of goals, such as understanding what caused the anxiety, its patterns, managing physical symptoms of anxiety, and reducing avoidance of feared situations.
Treatment can include psychological therapies. There are several types of therapy known to be helpful to manage anxiety disorders. These include (5):
- Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)
- Exposure therapy
- Psychodynamic therapy
- Eye movement desensitisation reprocessing (EMDR)
- Interpersonal psychotherapy
Medication may also be helpful to manage symptoms of anxiety, and is often used alongside psychological treatments. Types of medication can include anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medications (5).
Help for family & friends
The family and friends of someone experiencing anxiety need care and support too — it’s okay for family and friends to set boundaries, and to prioritise their own physical and mental health.
There are many other people out there who share similar experiences, and many services designed to help carers of people with mental health issues. Check out our Guide for Families and Friends for more info.
Effective medical, community, and psychological treatment is available, and a person who is experiencing anxiety can live a fulfilling life.
To connect with others who get it, visit our online Forums. They’re safe, anonymous and available 24/7.