Is Anxiety a Disorder?

Is Anxiety a Disorder?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) says that there are many different types of mental disorder.

They can present very different symptoms but will generally involve ‘a combination of abnormal thoughts, perceptions, emotions, behaviour and relationships with others’.

Anxiety is a feeling of worry, tension or apprehension, generally related to something that is about to happen or that you expect to or fear might happen.

It is slightly different to a fear response, which is more of a reaction to a clear and present danger. To simplify it with an analogy, you might feel anxious on a rollercoaster climbing its first big hill, then fear kicks in on the scary ride back down.

It is perfectly normal to feel anxious from time to time, especially about things that are about to happen that could have a major impact on some aspect of our life.

That could be attending a job interview or starting a new job, asking out a crush, dealing with illness, discussing divorce and many other different life events.

Anxiety can sometimes even be valuable. If you are anxious about taking an exam, for example, it could spur you on to study harder. It is a normal part of human experience, with anxiety and fear combining to form a sort of inbuilt alarm system.

Anxiety can be a problem however, especially if it is chronic, extreme, out of proportion or inappropriate (occurring in situations that should not usually cause anxiety) or simply of it has a big negative impact on your life.

You can suffer from problems with anxiety without your symptoms or experiences fitting a specific diagnosis but if your symptoms do fit certain criteria, you might be suffering from an anxiety disorder.


What causes Anxiety?

Normal anxiety is a natural reaction to stress and potential danger. When you are feeling anxious (or scared), your body will release ‘stress hormones’ including adrenaline and cortisol.

These can be useful in some situations, but the ‘fight or flight’ response is generally not as useful or appropriate in modern life as it was for our ancestors. In fact, the physical and psychological symptoms from anxiety can be very unpleasant.

When it comes to anxiety disorders such as generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), the exact cause is not understood and causal factors may vary between different people. The NHS says it is likely a combination of factors are involved, which could include:

  • Overactivity in certain parts of the brain, particularly those concerned with behaviour and emotion
  • An imbalance in serotonin and noradrenaline, chemicals in the brain that are involved with mood regulation and control
  • Inherited genes – it is thought anxiety disorders can run in the family
  • A history of traumatic experiences such as abuse, bullying and domestic violence
  • Substance misuse including alcohol and illegal drugs
  • Chronic pain and health conditions

With all that said, however, some people develop anxiety disorders without any of the above factors or conditions applying.


Different Signs and Symptoms of Anxiety

There are many different signs and symptoms of anxiety and not everyone will experience the same thing, even if they share a diagnosis of the same psychological disorder.

Some physical symptoms of anxiety could include:

  • Faster, stronger or irregular heartbeat
  • Feeling lightheaded or dizzy
  • Breathlessness
  • Excessive sweating
  • Headache
  • Chest pain
  • Feeling hot
  • Loss of appetite
  • Insomnia
  • Feeling sick

Some psychological symptoms commonly experienced could include:

  • Feeling tense
  • Inability to think about anything else
  • Obsessive thoughts
  • Feeling tearful or over-emotional
  • Worrying and inability to relax
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Intrusive memories from past traumatic events

In addition, some disorders may be associated with specific signs, symptoms and triggers. People suffering from agoraphobia may exhibit an intense fear of open spaces for example – although this particular disorder can be more complex than many people believe.

People with panic disorders are prone to recurrent panic attacks, although these can also affect people with other anxiety disorders or anyone who experiences extreme anxiety.

Some symptoms of a panic attack are similar to other aspects of anxiety and could include:

  • Sweating
  • Shaking or trembling
  • Racing heartbeat or palpitations
  • Shortness of breath or breathing very quickly
  • Faintness or dizziness
  • A feeling of being out of control
  • A feeling of impending danger or doom


Different types of Anxiety Disorders

There are a number of different anxiety disorders and anxiety-related disorders. They include, but are not limited to…


  • Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD)

People suffering from generalised anxiety disorder typically feel anxious most days and about a number of different things rather than one specific incident or event. They may get anxious about their health, work, social interactions and other things that most people consider routine. Even if one anxiety or worry is relieved it may simply be replaced by another one. This anxiety can be severe and can cause significant problems in the person’s day to day life.


  • Social anxiety disorder

Also known as social phobia, this is linked to extreme anxiety triggered by social situations, which could include parties, interactions in the workplace or even the prospect of meeting and talking to people in day to day life.


  • Panic disorder

Anyone experiencing extreme anxiety can suffer a panic attack but people with panic disorder experience them frequently and often with no clear external cause or trigger.

Other anxiety and anxiety-related disorders include agoraphobia, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), phobias, health anxiety and perinatal anxiety during and after pregnancy.


Treatments available for different Anxiety Disorders

There are a number of potential treatments for different anxiety disorders. These could include talking therapies including psychotherapy and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

CBT can change the way you think and react to people, places and situations that trigger your anxiety, while exposure therapy involves confronting the fears underlying certain anxiety-related disorders such as phobias.

Anti-anxiety medication is not generally used to ‘cure’ anxiety disorders. Therapies are generally needed for that but some antidepressants may be useful for treating anxiety disorders and anti-anxiety medication can help to reduce or manage the symptoms of anxiety.

If anxiety is seriously impacting your life, or you think you may be suffering from an anxiety disorder, it’s best to seek expert help as soon as possible.