What Is Anxiety?

The experience of anxiety can be hard to describe to other people. It can also be difficult to distinguish worry that seems reasonable for a stressful situation and worry that is just “too much”. We live in a complex and often stress-filled world. Learning about anxiety as a mental health condition may be useful as you try to better understand your own experience with stress, worry and fears.

Let’s start with acknowledging that if anxiety is bothersome to you, then it deserves to be addressed, regardless of whether or not it meets the definition of a mental health condition. Anxiety that reaches the status of a mental health condition is common in our country. The National Comorbidity Study Replication found that 19.1% of US adults had an anxiety disorder during the course of a year and that 31.2 % of US adults have had an anxiety disorder at some point in their life. One of the ways that mental health providers identify an anxiety disorder is by assessing if anxiety symptoms are negatively impacting a person’s ability to function within their relationships, work and home life.

Anxiety disorders involve fear and worry that is disproportionate to a stressor. However, anxiety isn’t always problematic. It can be a helpful response to a dangerous or difficult situation. Feelings of fear, worried thoughts, physical sensations of muscle tension, nausea and shortness of breath can all be signals that a person needs to pay attention and respond to a threat. Persistent anxiety related to everyday life, social situations or specific threats warrants further consideration and treatment.

The following four anxiety disorders are common and have a pattern of symptoms that is useful to review.

Panic Disorder

Panic attacks can seem like they are coming out of nowhere (unexpected) or be triggered by something fearful (expected). There is a difference between feeling anxious all of a sudden and having a panic attack. It is important to understand if the panic attack might be related to a medical condition or to the effects of a medication. Panic attacks involve at least four of the following symptoms occurring together:

  • Sweating
  • Shaking
  • Heart palpitations or increase in heart rate
  • Feeling short of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Upset stomach or nausea
  • Lightheadedness, dizziness, feeling faint
  • An altered sense of reality or feeling detached from oneself
  • Fears of going crazy or completely losing control
  • Fear of dying
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Feeling chilled or hot flashes

It may be helpful to note that while panic attacks feel like they will last forever, they are actually short-lived. Most panic attacks are over within minutes and do not last longer than 30 minutes. Additionally, a single panic attack is a common experience occurring in about 11% of Americans each year.

Social Anxiety Disorder

Individuals with social anxiety experience disproportionate fear and worry in social settings.

  • Fears involve how you will behave or be perceived in the presence of others
  • Fear of public embarrassment or humiliation resulting in avoidance of social situations
  • There is an understanding that the fear is excessive or problematic


A specific phobia is a very strong fear reaction to a situation, object or place. Common categories of phobia include animals, blood, injections, injuries, situations (like being on an airplane or in an enclosed space) and the natural environment (like severe weather, cliffs, etc.).

  • Fear is specific and extreme
  • The objection or situation elicits the fear right away
  • The fear response is disproportionate to the objective danger of the situation
  • An individual either engages in avoidance or experiences a high level of anxiety related to the object or situation

Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Whereas the previous conditions involve excessive worry about a specific experience or subject, Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) can involve being overly worried about a variety of everyday life experiences. Worrying too much about work, finances, health, social obligations, parenting and so forth can be accompanied by anxiousness that is out of proportion to the individual’s circumstances. Those with GAD have a hard time managing their worry and fear. In addition, at least three of the following symptoms are present for people with GAD:

  • Feeling edgy or restless
  • Easily fatigued
  • Difficulty with concentration, mind may go blank
  • Irritability
  • Muscle aches and soreness
  • Sleep problems

We hope you will connect with your health care team regarding any concerns that you may have about anxiety that has become difficult to manage. The goal of treating these conditions is not to completely eliminate fear, anxiety or worry. Instead, the goal is to achieve a more balanced response to fearful situations so that you can function at your best.