What is an anxiety disorder?

What are the main types of anxiety disorder?

Page last updated: May 2007

There are a number of different anxiety disorders.

Generalised anxiety disorder

Generalised anxiety disorder is characterised by excessive, uncontrollable, and unrealistic worry about everyday things, such as health, family, friends, money, or career.

People with this disorder worry constantly and irrationally about harm affecting themselves or their loved ones, and the worry is accompanied by a feeling of constant apprehension.

Panic disorder with and without agoraphobia

People with this disorder experience extreme panic attacks in situations where most people would not be afraid.

The attacks are accompanied by very unpleasant physical symptoms of anxiety, such as feeling like you are having a heart attack. There is also fear of "going crazy" or fear that the attack will lead to death or a total loss of control.

These fears lead some people to start to experience agoraphobia, which can severely interfere with their lives.

Agoraphobia is not a specific disorder, but a component of anxiety characterised by fear of being in places or situations from which it may be difficult or embarrassing to get away, or the fear that help might be unavailable if needed.

People with agoraphobia most commonly experience fear in a cluster of situations such as supermarkets and department stores, crowded places of all kinds, confined spaces, public transport, lifts, and expressways.

People experiencing agoraphobia may find comfort in the company of a safe person or object. This may be a spouse, friend, pet, or medicine carried with them.

Specific phobia

Everyone has some irrational fears, but phobias are intense fears about particular objects or situations that interfere with a person's life. These might include fear of heights, water, dogs, closed spaces, snakes, or spiders.

Someone with a specific phobia is fine when the feared object is not present. However, when faced with the feared object or situation, they can become highly anxious and experience a panic attack.

People affected by phobias can go to great lengths to avoid situations that would force them to confront the object or situation they fear.

Social phobia

Social phobia is a strong and persistent fear of social or performance situations. The person fears they will be scrutinised and negatively judged by others.

Social phobia can interfere significantly with a person's life because people cope by avoiding the social situation or enduring it with intense distress. They may limit what they do in front of others - especially eating, speaking, drinking, or writing - or withdraw from contact with others.

Obsessive compulsive disorder

This disorder involves constant unwanted thoughts, and often results in the performance of elaborate rituals in an attempt to control or banish the persistent thoughts.

The rituals are usually time consuming and seriously interfere with everyday life. For example, people may be constantly driven to wash their hands, recheck that the door is locked or the oven is turned off, or follow rigid rules of order.

People with obsessive compulsive disorder are often acutely embarrassed and keep their rituals a secret, even from their families.

Post-traumatic stress disorder

People who have experienced major trauma, such as war, torture, vehicle accident, fire or personal violence can continue to feel terror long after the event is over. Not everyone who experiences trauma develops post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

People with PTSD repeatedly re-live the traumatic event through intrusive, distressful recollections, such as nightmares or flashbacks. The flashbacks are often brought about by triggers related to the experience, which the person then tries to avoid. Becoming emotionally numb is also characteristic of PTSD.

Co-occurring mental health problems

People with one anxiety disorder are likely to have another, and also to experience depression. For more information on depression, read the brochure What is a depressive disorder?

Harmful alcohol and other drug use often co-occurs with anxiety. This makes treatment more complex, and effectively managing alcohol and other drug use is important.