What Anxiety Disorders Look Like in Adults

Learn the most common symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder in adults, as well as warning signs that may point to OCD, panic disorder, or another related anxiety disorder.

A man with anxious ADHD looks stressed out, anxious, and worried about something on his computer.
A man with anxious ADHD looks stressed out, anxious, and worried about something on his computer.

Occasional anxiety is a normal, healthy response to certain, universally fearful circumstances — like public speaking, skydiving, or asking your boss for a raise. In other words, anxiety and fear aren’t bad — so long as they’re appropriate responses to specific situations. However, if your anxiety feels out of proportion, unpredictable, or unrelenting, you may be suffering from a type of anxiety disorder.

Though no two people experience anxiety in the same way, some common symptoms do exist. Here, we explain how the different types of anxiety — like generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety, and OCD — commonly manifest. If any of these symptoms seem familiar, consider talking to your doctor about an anxiety evaluation.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder

When most people talk about anxiety, they really mean generalized anxiety disorder, or GAD. GAD refers to anxiety that is nearly constant and disproportionate to its causes. If you have GAD, you tend to worry about everything — regardless of whether its formidable, changeable, or foreseeable. It usually manifests in early adulthood, and affects as many as 6.8 million adults in the United States.

Adults with GAD will usually experience several of the following symptoms:

  • Difficulty sleeping (e.g. waking frequently during the night, trouble falling asleep, nightmares)
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Muscle tension
  • Stomachaches
  • Excessive sweating, particularly in the palms
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Extreme fear of social contact
  • Substance abuse
  • Jitteriness
  • Excessive worry

In the office, GAD may manifest in these workplace-specific symptoms, according to WebMD:

  • Difficulty working with colleagues and clients
  • Trouble focusing on work
  • Turning down assignments because of fear of failure
  • Fear of public speaking
  • Fear of using the elevator

Social Anxiety Disorder

Another common anxiety disorder – affecting up to 13% of the U.S. population – is social anxiety disorder (SAD). Although it is often misunderstood as shyness, SAD is not a personality trait but rather a neurological condition that causes extreme fear and anxiety in certain social situations. The following are symptoms of SAD, though not everyone with SAD necessarily experiences all of them. Some people might exhibit symptoms in only one type of situation, while others might experience multiple symptoms in various social situations.

  • Feeling self-conscious in front of others
  • Extremely fearful that others will judge you
  • Worries for days or weeks before an event
  • Avoids or becomes intensely uncomfortable in situations requiring social interaction
  • Keeps conversation with others to a minimum
  • Difficulty making or keeping friends
  • Experiences panic attacks, including shaking, blushing, nausea or sweating, when in a social situation

Panic Disorder

Your heart begins pounding. Blood echoes in your ears. Your pulse threatens to burst through your veins. Your body enters a state of overall physical discomfort as your nerves send an alert message to your brain.

Sound familiar? These panic attacks – or sudden onsets of acute fear that something terrible is going to happen – are what characterize panic disorder. These feelings may be warranted in extreme situations (read: running from a bear or bungee jumping), but if you’ve experienced them frequently and seemingly out-of-the-blue, you may be suffering from panic disorder. Signs and symptoms include:

  • Sudden and frequent attacks of fear
  • A frightening lack of control during panic attacks
  • Distracting worry about when the next attack will happen
  • A fear or avoidance of places where panic attacks may occur
  • Physical symptoms like a rapid heartbeat, dizziness, hyperventilation, and numb extremities during an attack

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

OCD is an anxiety disorder characterized by obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are persistent thoughts, impulses, or images that are intrusive and cause distress and anxiety. Common obsessions include:

  • Contamination: fear of contracting a disease
  • Harm: fear of being responsible for something bad happening to a loved one
  • Perfectionism: a need to have everything symmetrical, “just right,” or ideal
  • Religious obsessions: fear of offending God
  • Intrusive sexual or violent thoughts

Compulsions are repetitive physical behaviors, like repeatedly washing hands, or mental acts, like counting. They are often done in response to obsessions but can take on a life of their own — and cause more anxiety when they’re not carried out. Common compulsions include the following:

  • Checking: the need to check and recheck something
  • Cleaning or washing
  • Counting or repeating: the need to repeat a specific behavior
  • Arranging and organizing: the need to organize items in a certain way; becoming upset if anything is changed
  • Collecting or hoarding: saving books, magazines, ticket stubs, birthday cards, or other items in the belief that they cannot be thrown away

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

PTSD used to be known as “combat fatigue,” due to its prevalence in soldiers returning from war. Now mental health professionals recognize that PTSD can affect anyone who has lived through a severe accident or traumatic situation. Even though the trauma has passed, the person still feels like they’re in danger. Symptoms can include:

  • Frightening flashbacks
  • Persistent sadness, anger, or low moods
  • Constant feelings of being ready for an attack
  • Avoiding situations that remind you of the trauma

If you suffer from symptoms of GAD, or any of the related anxiety disorders outlined above, make an appointment with your doctor for a thorough evaluation.