It is normal and even healthy to experience fear and worry throughout life. Although it’s uncomfortable, fear can keep us safe from harm. However, worry and fear should not be so intense or long-lasting that you have trouble living your daily life. If that’s what you experience, you may have an anxiety disorder.

Anxiety disorders cause debilitating fear, even when no trigger is clearly present. This anxiety can be chronic or acute, depending on which anxiety disorder a person experiences. Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is characterized by chronic anxiety while panic disorder causes people to have acute, intense episodes of anxiety.

How Common Are Anxiety Disorders?

Sadly, anxiety disorders are common. In the United States, about 18 percent of adults have an anxiety disorder during any given year. That’s 40 million adults living with these issues. Children and teens can also have anxiety disorders, but those numbers are more difficult to estimate.

When people with anxiety disorders get the help they need, they can manage their symptoms well. However, only a fraction of people with these conditions ever get professional care for their anxiety.

When we bust myths about anxiety disorders and spread understanding instead, we can all help people find the care they need.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

GAD is one of the most common anxiety disorders. This chronic disorder causes people to experience ongoing anxiety for at least six months. This timeline helps patients and clinicians know the difference between short-term stress and a mental health disorder.

Symptoms of GAD include:

  • A consistent and overwhelming sense of impending doom
  • Perseveration – repeating specific phrases
  • Feeling on-edge or on high alert often
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Lacking decision-making abilities
  • Being easily startled

In addition to the mental and emotional symptoms, people with GAD may experience physical signs of the disorder as well, including:

  • Fatigue (often from not sleeping well)
  • Trembling
  • Increased heart rate
  • Sweating more than is typical for the person
  • Nausea and other digestive troubles
  • Muscle tension and aches

Someone with GAD can have mild, moderate, or severe symptoms. In severe cases, a patient may be so anxious that they are unable to complete basic daily tasks. Other people with GAD get through the day without others noticing their symptoms, but they struggle internally. Some people with GAD also have panic attacks, which we explore below.

Panic Attack and Panic Disorders

Panic attacks are anxiety episodes that last for a short time. Many of the physical and emotional symptoms for a panic attack are similar to those of GAD. For example, people who are having panic attacks often experience a high heart rate, sweating, and a sense of dread. However, the intensity and length of symptoms make a panic attack different from GAD.

GAD can last months, years, or even decades. Panic attacks typically last for a few minutes to an hour. Some people experience longer panic attacks that last for a few hours. While panic attacks are relatively short, the symptoms are overwhelming.

Typically, someone who is having a panic attack is completely unable to continue on with their normal lives. They cannot drive and may even have trouble standing upright. Some people experience a partial or total loss of vision or hearing during panic attacks.

The sense of dread is also more urgent during a panic attack. While GAD may cause people to feel anxious about the future, panic attacks make people feel as though their world is in danger in that very moment.

How Frequent are Panic Attacks?

Some people have one panic attack and never have another. Other people have frequent panic attacks due to panic disorder. And still more individuals are somewhere else on the spectrum.

People with GAD sometimes have panic attacks. This can occur when the symptoms of GAD get worse.

Treatment Options for Anxiety

A person’s anxiety treatment plan should be as unique as they are. Depending on the person’s symptoms, medical history, and preferences, the care plan may include any combination of:

  • Medication
  • Therapy
  • Lifestyle Changes

While there’s technically no cure for anxiety disorders, these treatments can be incredibly effective. Many people with anxiety disorders are able to lead healthy lives once they find a treatment plan that works.