Anxiety

“I Feel Like I’m Losing My Grip.”

No two people experience anxiety in the same way. Here, we explain the symptoms of phobias, panic attacks, social anxiety disorder, and other types of anxiety disorders — plus how to treat each one.

Woman with ADHD has anxiety and looks out the window.
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Identifying Anxiety

It’s normal to feel anxious once in a while. Anxiety and fear aren't in themselves bad things — they're appropriate responses to certain situations. But if your anxiety feels like it’s taking over your life, you may be suffering from a type of anxiety disorder. Read about the different types of anxiety disorders here — if any of them seem familiar, consider talking to your doctor about treatments for anxiety.

A phobia, like being scared of dogs, is a common type of anxiety.
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1. Phobia

A phobia is one of the most common types of anxiety. It’s a fear of something very specific — a fear you usually don’t notice until it’s challenged. If you have a phobia of dogs, for example, in most cases, it won’t always be on your mind. But when a dog suddenly comes near you, you may have a sudden episode of anxiety.

A man conquers his phobia of dogs by spending time with a dog.
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Treatments for Phobias

If you avoid certain places or situations due to your phobia, you may want to consider treatment, either professional or “self-help.” Professionals often recommend ”exposure therapy,” where the patient is gradually introduced to their phobia over time. Relaxation techniques, like breathing exercises, are good to have on hand, too, as they help you calm down when confronted with your phobia.

[Self-Test: Generalized Anxiety Disorder in Adults]

A woman experiences social anxiety at a party.
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2. Social Anxiety Disorder

Also called a “social phobia,” social anxiety disorder is just what it sounds like — extreme fear and anxiety related to social situations. Experts once thought it was limited to a fear of public speaking, but now it’s known that social anxiety disorder can occur in any situation where you are encountering unfamiliar people. Extreme social anxiety can stop people from interacting with the world around them — fearing routine tasks like ordering food — and can lead to them becoming withdrawn.

A girl speaks with a therapist to overcome her social anxiety disorder.
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Treatments for Social Anxiety Disorders

Social anxiety disorder is often treated with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT guides patients away from distorted thinking patterns — like assuming that everyone is judging them or dislikes them — and works to help patients stop avoiding situations that cause social anxiety. Medication can also be used to calm the physical symptoms of anxiety, but it is most effective in conjunction with CBT.

A stressed ADHD woman has a panic attack
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3. Panic Disorder

Panic disorder is characterized by "panic attacks," which are sudden onsets of acute fear that something terrible is going to happen. Symptoms include rapid heartbeat, dizziness, and hyperventilation, and may be mistaken for a more serious ailment, like a heart attack. Panic attacks usually don’t last longer than 20 minutes, but their damage can stretch beyond the attack itself. Anxiety about it happening again — in many cases, triggering more panic attacks — is categorized as panic disorder.

A man breathes into a paper bag to help stop a panic attack.
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Treatments for Panic Disorder

Panic disorder is most effectively treated with psychotherapy, particularly CBT — more than 70 percent of patients report being panic-free after CBT treatment. A common method is "interoceptive therapy," which simulates the symptoms of a panic attack. Since fear of recurring panic attacks (and their often-terrifying symptoms) is a big part of panic disorder, interoceptive therapy lets patients act out symptoms in a controlled environment where they feel safe.

[Self-Test: Does My Child Have an Anxiety Disorder?]

A person with OCD may have obsessions, like repeatedly washing his hands.
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4. OCD

Obsessive compulsive disorder is an anxiety disorder characterized by “obsessions” (obtrusive unwelcome thoughts) and "compulsions" (repetitive behaviors). A repeated unwanted violent fantasy is a common example of an obsession. Compulsions — like repeatedly washing hands — are sometimes created in response to obsessions, but often they take on a life of their own — and cause more anxiety when they’re not carried out.

Knowing the definition of obsession is the first step to treating obsessive compulsive disorder.
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Treatments for OCD

OCD is treated with a type of therapy known as “exposure and response prevention” (ERP), which gradually teaches the patient to tolerate the anxiety-causing stimulus — without resorting to the compulsion. If someone has obsessive thoughts about germs (and compulsively washes their hands as a result), ERP would slowly expose them to “dirty” objects without allowing them to resort to hand washing. Medications like SSRIs are often used in conjunction with ERP.

A soldier with PTSD, a form of anxiety disorder, leans against a building.
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5. PTSD

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, used to be known as “combat fatigue,” due to its prevalence in soldiers returning from war. Now, however, 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, low mood, and constant feelings of being “on-edge” and ready for an attack.

A group therapy session for PTSD, an anxiety disorder
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Treatments for PTSD

The most powerful treatment for PTSD is good old-fashioned “talk therapy,” either individual or as part of a group. Talk therapy can help patients understand where their fear is coming from, deal with any residual guilt or shame related to the event, and learn relaxation and anger control techniques. Research shows that support from family and friends during this time is especially crucial to someone suffering from PTSD.

A man with anxiety leans against the wall in a storage area with his eyes closed.
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6. General Anxiety Disorder

If you have generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), you worry about everything — whether or not it’s necessary. GAD means anxiety that is nearly constant and disproportionate to the causes. It usually starts in early adulthood, and affects as many as 6.8 million adults in the United States. Most people with GAD are able to function socially and hold down a job, but the constant worry can greatly impact quality of life and can even cause physical symptoms like headaches.

A woman gets a prescription from her doctor to treat generalized anxiety disorder.
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Treatments for GAD

Anti-anxiety medications and anti-depressants are effective in treating GAD, usually in conjunction with talk therapy or CBT. Anti-anxiety medications are powerful and often start working right away, but many cannot be taken for long periods of time. Anti-depressants can generally control anxiety without uncomfortable side effects, but they can take several weeks to start working. Talk to your doctor about what’s right for you.

[Free Resource: Rein In Intense Emotions]

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