It’s normal, even healthy, to feel anxiety from time to time. It is when anxiety overwhelms you or prevents you from making good decisions that it can be harmful. Understanding the major types of anxiety disorders is often the first step in understanding how to successfully treat anxiety. This article will explain the most common anxiety disorders while subsequent posts will discuss treatment options.

The most common way these days to categorize anxiety is to take the DSM-IV’s (published by the American Psychiatric Association) definitions of anxiety disorders. The DSM-IV categorizes anxiety disorders by symptoms and behaviors. A diagnosis can be made if you demonstrate a number of specific symptoms and behaviors over a specified period of time.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder

The first of these is Generalized Anxiety Disorder or GAD. If you have GAD you worry and ruminate endlessly over everyday events as well as over possible (but unlikely) future events. The worries are accompanied by bodily reactions including ongoing feelings of tension and stress and often headaches, stomach upset and sleep disturbances. If you have GAD, you will often have perfectionistic tendencies, take unwarranted responsibility for things in your life (and in the world), seek reassurance frequently and fear making mistakes.


Phobias are extreme fears of specific situations or things. The specific situation or thing (such as a dentist visit or a spider) may cause some or even most people to be cautious or nervous, but the phobic person has a much more intense reaction. If you have a  phobia, you usually develop a strong avoidance to the object of your fear and will often go to extreme lengths to avoid it. An anxiety disorder is diagnosed when the phobia is out of control and interferes with your life.

Panic Disorder

Panic Disorder is characterized by repeated and sudden attacks of intense fear called panic attacks. These usually seem like they are unprovoked and can include symptoms like chest pain, pounding heart, sweating, fear of losing control, fear of choking, trembling, shortness of breath, etc. They are very frightening and can cause an intense fear of having more panic attacks. You may begin to change and rearrange your daily activities in order to prevent having panic attacks. About 35% of people with panic disorder are also diagnosed with agoraphobia, which is the fear of public places. Agoraphobia often develops from your fear of having a panic attack while in a public place.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

OCD is characterized by having obsessions (unwanted and unrelenting thoughts or urges) and trying to eliminate them by performing compulsions (rituals or actions which decrease the worry caused by the obsessions). The obsessions can be centered on cleanliness (such as with the TV character “Monk”) or on disturbing and frightening thoughts. To rid yourself of the obsessions, you perform specific actions intended to ease the intense anxiety.  OCD is diagnosed when the obsessions and compulsions interfere with living a normal life.

Post-traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD)

Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) is much in the news lately as Army Chief of Staff, General George Casey, called PTSD the “defining military health issue of our era”. You don’t have to have engaged in combat to suffer from PTSD. PTSD is caused by any event which traumatized you to the extent that it made you feel helpless or your safety feel threatened. Over time, you are unable to recover from the shock or trauma of the event and may experience PTSD symptoms, such as continually re-experiencing the event, numbness, avoidance, depression and hopelessness, and/or many others.

Other Anxiety Types

Other common anxiety problems include social anxiety, performance anxiety and school phobia. There are also many related issues such as depression, eating disorders, trichotillomania (pulling hair or picking at your skin), and body dysmorphic disorder (intense obsession about parts of your body) to name the more common anxiety issues.

An individual with anxiety disorders may have symptoms from just one of these categories or symptoms and behaviors from multiple categories. For example, a person with GAD may also have panic attacks.

Next time I’ll write about the most effective treatments for Anxiety disorders. Sign up for updates (upper right on this page) to be notified when articles and resources are added dealing with Anxiety Disorders and other mental health topics.

If you’re in the Denver, CO metro area and would like to schedule an appointment to discuss your own issues with anxiety please feel free to contact me for an initial consultation.