Anxiety encompasses feelings of worry, nervousness, or dread. Although unpleasant, occasional bouts of anxiety are natural and sometimes even productive: By signaling that something isn’t quite right, anxiety can help people both avoid danger and make important and meaningful changes.
But persistent, pervasive anxiety that disrupts one’s daily life, whether at school, work, or with friends, can be the mark of an anxiety disorder. Nearly one-third of adults in the U.S. will grapple with one at some point in their lives, according to the National Institutes of Health, and the condition strikes more women than men.
Anxiety disorders manifest in different ways, and are often diagnostically distinct. Generalized anxiety disorder is a chronic state of severe worry and tension, often without provocation. Panic disorder refers to sudden and repeated panic attacks—episodes of intense fear and discomfort that peak within a few minutes. Obsessive-compulsive disorder is marked by intrusive thoughts or compulsions to carry out specific behaviors, such as handwashing. Post-traumatic stress disorder may develop after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event.
Anxiety is often accompanied by depression, and the two share an underlying genetic architecture.
Beyond genetics, childhood experiences such as early trauma or parental overprotection can play a role in forming an anxious disposition. In people with anxiety disorders, the brain circuitry that controls the threat response seems to go awry: The amygdala, a structure that detects danger, can become overactive, triggering a threat where none really exists.
Anxiety is often treated successfully using therapy, medication or both. Cognitive behavioral therapy is one of the most effective options, in which patients learn to identify problematic thought patterns and change how they respond. Mindfulness meditation is another effective technique for some.
For more on causes, symptoms, and treatments of anxiety disorders, see our Diagnosis Dictionary.