Understanding Anxiety Disorders: Definition and Perspectives in Mental Health

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  • 0:07 Defining Abnormal Anxiety
  • 3:03 Anxiety Disorders:…
  • 5:37 What Causes Anxiety Disorders?
  • 7:06 Treatment
  • 9:02 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sarah Lavoie

Sarah has taught Psychology at the college level and has a master's degree in Counseling Psychology.

Anxiety disorders are the most common type of mental disorder, affecting as many as one in four people. In this lesson, we will explore anxiety disorders including common causes, symptoms, and treatments.

Defining Abnormal Anxiety

The feeling of fear is a feeling that every single being can relate to. Fear keeps us safe by activating our minds and bodies for immediate danger. Whether we confront the danger or run, we can thank our brain for the notification.

While fear happens in response to a threat, anxiety is mental distress caused by fear of future dangers or uncertainties. Anxiety is also a very normal emotion. Everyone experiences anxiety when facing or anticipating a challenging situation. The challenge can be anything from a school exam to an upcoming blind date or even concern about paying the bills. Luckily, anxiety, like fear, is adaptive. Anxiety serves to prepare us for future threats or challenges, just as fear does, by arousing the sympathetic nervous system.

Although we may think that having no anxiety would be the best way to operate, a moderate amount of anxiety actually improves performance. For example, think back to Bob's meeting with the bear. What if Bob had experienced little or no anxiety when the bear approached him?

Clearly, having no fear or anxiety is not ideal for this situation. Bob needs a moderate amount of anxiety to react properly. Scientists have found that some anxiety is beneficial to us, not only in reacting to potentially dangerous situations but also in planning and preparing. But, this is only true for lower levels of anxiety. While little or no anxiety can leave us unprepared for challenges, high anxiety can create confusion, distractibility, panic, fatigue and other symptoms that ruin performance.

So, when does anxiety go from a normal, healthy emotion to an unhealthy, disordered one? The answer to this question is different for everyone. Although we would probably all be scared when confronted with a bear, our brains can perceive and react to danger differently. Experiencing a high level of anxiety isn't pleasant. Although it may keep us safe in times of danger, high anxiety can negatively affect our performance.

In some people, high levels of anxiety can become a lasting problem. Instead of returning to normal levels of anxiety after we adjust to a situation, the brain can misfire and continue to send signals of fear. Sometimes, fear, anxiety and even panic can arise for no reason at all.

Anxiety Disorders: Types and Symptoms

Anxiety disorders are a group of mental disorders marked by frequent and excessive fear, anxiety and distress. Those affected by an anxiety disorder feel fear and anxiety symptoms that are extreme for the situation they are in.

Common symptoms of anxiety disorders include:

  • Fear
  • Unease and anticipation
  • Feelings of impending doom
  • Heart palpitations
  • Chest pain
  • Hyperventilation
  • Muscle tension
  • Body pains
  • Stomach upset
  • Dizziness
  • Sweating or chills
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Insomnia
  • Fatigue
  • Weight changes
  • Nightmares

Looking at these symptoms, it's not hard to imagine that suffering from an anxiety disorder can seriously impair a person's life. Anxiety disorders can make everyday activities, such as work, school or even visiting with friends, very difficult or even impossible. Anxiety disorders share a group of common symptoms, but each disorder is unique in its characteristics and may require different treatments. Let's review the most common disorders in this category:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder: Generalized anxiety disorder is characterized by chronic and persistent anxiety that lasts at least six months and occurs during everyday activities and events.
  • Panic disorder: Panic disorder is a disorder in which people experience sudden, frequent and unexplained periods of intense terror.
  • Phobias: A phobia is a persistent, irrational and disabling fear of a specific object or situation.
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD): OCD is comprised of irrational, unwanted thoughts (obsessions) and often repetitive actions (compulsions).
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): PTSD is a set of extreme symptoms that arise after experiencing a traumatic event. Symptoms often include irritability and anger, nightmares and flashbacks to the event.

What Causes Anxiety Disorders?

As with all mental disorders, many factors are involved in triggering anxiety disorders. There is rarely a single answer to what causes an anxiety disorder in a certain individual. Most commonly, it is a mix of biology, personal traits and life experiences that combine to trigger these disorders.

We do know that anxiety disorders can be caused by traumatic brain injury, specific medical illnesses or even abuse of stimulants, such as caffeine. However, even with something that seems as clear-cut as a major stimulant overdose, the effects on different people are never the same.

Research suggests a strong genetic correlation in many anxiety disorders. Scientists estimate that heritability can account for 20- 50% of the risk of developing an anxiety disorder! Researchers have also discovered that certain brain structures have some very significant differences in anxiety disorder patients.

A section of the brain known as the fear circuit controls emotional responses, such as fear and anxiety, and has been found to be overactive in people who suffer from anxiety disorders. Alongside biology, psychologists continue to study specific personality traits and ways of thinking that are more common amongst those with anxiety disorders.


Anxiety disorders are the most common group of mental disorders. It is estimated that the lifetime odds of developing an anxiety disorder are greater than 25%! That means one in four people are likely to have an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives.

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