When Anxiety Becomes a Disorder

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do-i-have-an-anxiety-disorderIt’s normal to feel anxious or worry once in a while. But if those feelings start to impact your work, personal life, or health, then you may have an anxiety disorder.

As Charles Goodstein, MD, a clinical professor of psychiatry at New York University Langone Medical Center, puts it, “What makes a disorder is when people have anxiety that mounts to such an intensity that they're no longer able to cope with it.”

Anxiety disorders, which center around excessive, irrational fear or dread, affect about 40 million adults in the United States.

Physical symptoms may include a quickened heart rate or skipped heart beats, rapid breathing, dry mouth, sweating, trembling, and dizziness. While mild anxiety can subside relatively quickly, symptoms associated with an anxiety disorder last at least six months and can worsen, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Even children can have severe anxiety, particularly at stressful times like the start of a school year.

“Anxiety disorders are the most common thing kids come to a psychologist with, and around August or September, we see a lot more kids coming in for anxiety,” says Sanno Zack, PhD, assistant clinical director of the outpatient clinic at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford in Palo Alto, California.


One of the most common types of anxiety disorders is panic disorder, which "is diagnosed when a patient experiences recurrent panic attacks, and when the patient suffers from worry and avoidant behavior between attacks," says James Murrough, MD, assistant professor of psychiatry and neuroscience and director of the Mood and Anxiety Disorders program at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City.

"The disorder can lead to serious disability, because the person develops a phobia of leaving the house for fear of having a panic attack," Dr. Murrough says.

Other types of anxiety disorders include agoraphobia, or the fear of being in a place from which you can’t escape or avoid embarrassment; and generalized anxiety disorder, in which a person worries constantly.

What causes anxiety disorders is unclear, though it’s likely a combination of genetic, environmental, psychological, and developmental factors.

Studies have linked anxiety disorders with substance abuse and an increased risk for suicide, so any severe, persistent symptoms should be reported to a doctor.

Treatment typically includes medication, psychotherapy, or both. You can find resources for treatment and support on the Anxiety and Depression Association of America website.

Do you have a health-related question for Dr. Gupta? You can submit it here. For more health news and advice, visit Health Matters With Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

ILLUSTRATION CREDIT: Andy Baker/Getty Images

Last Updated:6/22/2016
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