Panic – What are Anxiety Disorders?

by Dianne E. Butts

Everyone experiences anxiety, whether it’s dreading tomorrow’s math test or fearing a dangerous situation. However, anxiety disorders cause anxiety out of proportion to the situation and interfere with normal, daily activities.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), exaggerated tension without apparent cause, can be debilitating but doesn’t usually cause people to avoid certain situations. People with GAD often seem unable to relax or fall asleep and may experience lightheadedness, shortness of breath, nausea, trembling, muscle tension, headaches, irritability, or sweating.

Panic Disorder (PD) causes people to feel terror suddenly and unpredictably. PD can become disabling when people avoid situations they fear may bring on an attack. Panic attack symptoms include rapid pulse, chest pains, shortness of breath, dizziness, nausea, numbness, trembling, and a fear of going crazy or dying. Depression or alcoholism often accompanies PD.

Agoraphobia, the most disabling anxiety disorder, is diagnosed when panic attacks cause people to increasingly refrain from normal activities. As such people avoid situations where they fear an attack may occur — in crowds and stores and on bridges and public transportation — they become so restricted, they may not leave their homes.

Social Phobia (SP), an intense fear of humiliation in social settings, may cause sufferers to avoid parties, public speaking, eating out, or even signing a check in public. Unlike shyness, those with SP can feel at ease around others, yet particular situations, like walking down an aisle, cause intense anxiety. SP disrupts relationships and careers as sufferers avoid certain situations.

ObsessiveCompulsive Disorder (OCD) is characterized by rituals, such as washing hands or checking things repeatedly (compulsions), or persistent, unwelcome thoughts, such as fears of committing violent acts, of performing sexual acts repugnant to the person, or of thoughts contrary to the person’s religious beliefs (obsessions). Compulsive activities consume an hour or more each day and interfere with daily life.

PostTraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can result after a terrifying event, causing sufferers frightening thoughts and memories. Anniversaries of the incident can be difficult and ordinary events can trigger flashbacks or intrusive images. Sufferers may become easily irritated or have violent outbursts. Depression, substance abuse, or anxiety may accompany PTSD.


Source: Anxiety Disorders (Washington: National Institute of Mental Health, 1994). Brochure states, “All material in this publication is free of copyright restrictions and may be copied, reproduced, or duplicated without permission of the Institute; citation of the source is appreciated.”