Anxiety is a normal human emotion that everyone experiences at times. Many people feel anxious, or nervous, when faced with a problem at work, before taking a test, or making an important decision. Anxiety disorders, however, are different. They can cause such distress that it interferes with a person's ability to lead a normal life.
An anxiety disorder is a serious mental illness. For people with anxiety disorders, worry and fear are constant and overwhelming, and can be crippling.
There are several recognized types of anxiety disorders, including:
Panic disorder: People with this condition have feelings of terror that strike suddenly and repeatedly with no warning. Other symptoms of a panic attack include sweating, chest pain, palpitations (unusually strong or irregular heartbeats), and a feeling of choking, which may make the person feel like he or she is having a heart attack or "going crazy."
Social anxiety disorder: Also called social phobia, social anxiety disorder involves overwhelming worry and self-consciousness about everyday social situations. The worry often centers on a fear of being judged by others, or behaving in a way that might cause embarrassment or lead to ridicule.
Specific phobias: A specific phobia is an intense fear of a specific object or situation, such as snakes, heights, or flying. The level of fear is usually inappropriate to the situation and may cause the person to avoid common, everyday situations.
Generalized anxiety disorder: This disorder involves excessive, unrealistic worry and tension, even if there is little or nothing to provoke the anxiety.
What Are the Symptoms of an Anxiety Disorder?
Symptoms vary depending on the type of anxiety disorder, but general symptoms include:
Feelings of panic, fear, and uneasiness
Cold or sweaty hands and/or feet
Shortness of breath
An inability to be still and calm
Numbness or tingling in the hands or feet
What Causes Anxiety Disorders?
The exact cause of anxiety disorders is unknown; but anxiety disorders -- like other forms of mental illness -- are not the result of personal weakness, a character flaw, or poor upbringing. As scientists continue their research on mental illness, it is becoming clear that many of these disorders are caused by a combination of factors, including changes in the brain and environmental stress.
Like other brain illnesses, anxiety disorders may be caused by problems in the functioning of brain circuits that regulate fear and other emotions. Studies have shown that severe or long-lasting stress can change the way nerve cells within these circuits transmit information from one region of the brain to another. Other studies have shown that people with certain anxiety disorders have changes in certain brain structures that control memories linked with strong emotions. In addition, studies have shown that anxiety disorders run in families, which means that they can at least partly be inherited from one or both parents, like the risk for heart disease or cancer. Moreover, certain environmental factors -- such as a trauma or significant event -- may trigger an anxiety disorder in people who have an inherited susceptibility to developing the disorder.