written by: Emma Lloyd
• edited by: Paul Arnold
• updated: 12/18/2010
It’s normal to feel anxiety in stressful situations, but for some people, anxiety is a part of life even in the absence of an identifiable stressor. How can you tell the difference between normal and abnormal anxiety? Learning about the signs and symptoms of an anxiety disorder can help.
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Signs and Symptoms of an Anxiety Disorder
There are several categories of anxiety disorder: generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. The signs and symptoms of an anxiety disorder can differ quite widely among the various categories, but in all cases, the defining characteristic of the disorder is that general or specific situations can trigger abnormal anxiety levels.
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Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
People with generalized anxiety disorder tend to have chronic anxiety that isn’t necessarily triggered by just one or two specific situation types. Rather, the anxiety might be present some or all of the time.
Signs of GAD can include both physical and mental symptoms. The most overriding mental symptom is constant anxiety, where normal everyday concerns can become magnified in importance, and might be significant sources of anxiety.
Anxiety is generally accompanied by physical symptoms such as headaches, muscle tension and aches, fatigue, twitching or trembling, difficulty swallowing or the feeling of a lump in the throat, sweating, and irritability.
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The main characteristic of panic disorder is the occurrence of episodes of intense fear or panic, often accompanied by physical symptoms. Common physical symptoms include rapid, pounding heartbeat, feelings of weakness, dizziness, or faintness, sweating, and difficulty breathing. Chest pain or a feeling of tightness in the chest is another common symptom.
During a panic attack, feelings of fear are so intense that the person having the attack might be unable to think clearly, or might feel a sense that something horrifying is about to happen, or that he is about to completely lose control of himself.
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Social Anxiety Disorder
People with social anxiety disorder are self-conscious in social situations. The anxiety can be related to a specific type of situation, such as eating in front of other people, or public speaking. In the most severe form of the disorder, the anxiety can be triggered by almost any type of social interaction, or even just being in the same room as other people.
The main symptom is an intense fear of the specific triggering situation, with anxiety triggered by the thought of being watched and judged by others, or of making potentially humiliating social errors. Physical symptoms might include extreme blushing, sweating, nausea, shaking, and stammering or difficulty speaking.
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Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
People with PTSD tend to have symptoms of both anxiety disorder and panic disorder, triggered by a traumatic event such as violent assault, rape, a natural disaster, or a war.
Someone with this anxiety disorder might experience chronic anxiety, feelings of emotional numbness, sleep disturbances, and constant physical and mental alertness - a state called hypervigilance. The traumatic incident is relived over and over in the mind, and thoughts of the event cannot be controlled. Sometimes this reliving of the event can trigger a panic attack, or high-level anxiety.
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Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
OCD is an anxiety disorder in which the individual performs repeated actions commonly called rituals, as a way of dealing with anxiety and obsessive thoughts. A person with OCD has persistent, obsessive thoughts about one or more harmful situations, such as getting sick and dying, suicide, or hurting other people.
Rituals such as organization and cleaning, repeated hand-washing or showering, and handling objects in certain specific ways, help temper the anxiety; however extreme ritual-performing can interfere with everyday life just as much, if not more, than the anxiety itself.
The two defining symptoms of OCD are the obsessive thoughts of harm, and the compulsive ritualistic behavior that is the individual's way of dealing with them. These symptoms tend to get worse in stressful situations, and often someone with OCD will need to perform rituals for greater periods of time in order to feel "safe" during periods of great stress.