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What are anxiety disorders?

You may have heard the term “anxiety disorder” used by a doctor or another health professional, and you may have wondered about it. Can’t we just call it “anxiety”? Why tack on an extra word?

There’s a good reason. The term “anxiety disorder” can refer to a whole group of different conditions, some of which you’ve probably heard of and some of which might be new to you. What they have in common is excessive anxiety, worry, fear, avoidance or compulsive behaviours that cause significant distress or difficulty with day-to-day functioning. Here are some of the common ones.

Common anxiety disorders

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD): GAD is what most people think of when they think of anxiety – excessive (usually daily) nervousness and worry about many activities or events. To be diagnosed as GAD, this has to last at least six months. This kind of anxiety is common – about 3% of us have it during any given year.

Phobias: You’ve probably heard of phobias, but you might not know how serious they can be. This persistent, unrealistic anxiety about (and fear of) certain things or situations can interfere with a person’s daily functioning. The most common phobias are about spiders, insects, mice, snakes and heights. Fortunately, phobias are often considered the most easily treated anxiety disorders.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD): OCD can seem funny in a movie, but the people living with it repeatedly experience unwanted ideas or impulses that intrude on their thoughts and cause anxiety. They feel compelled to do certain rituals (such as counting or hand-washing) to relieve this anxiety. Most people with OCD know that their rituals don’t actually accomplish anything, and they are often embarrassed by them – but this isn’t enough to make them stop the behaviour.

Panic disorder: Any person with an anxiety disorder can suffer a panic attack because of it, but people with panic disorder have spontaneous panic attacks that don’t appear to be caused by anything. These attacks can cause chest pain, nausea, dizziness, a sensation of choking and shortness of breath. Some people have them weekly or even daily, while others can go months between attacks.

Other conditions classified as anxiety disorders include post-traumatic stress disorder (feelings of terror after a traumatic event) and social anxiety disorder (unrealistic fear of social or performance situations).

As you can see, there are a lot of kinds of anxiety, each with their own effects.

What are anxiety disorders?