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Anxiety disorders are among the most common mental health problems. Many people struggle with anxiety disorders, hiding their discomfort as best they can and avoiding situations that provoke their fears. They often do not seek treatment, but their lives are unnecessarily limited as result, and they tolerate a lifetime of discomfort.

Some people who have undiagnosed anxiety disorders self-medicate with alcohol or other drugs. Often, as time goes by, they need more of the drug to control the anxiety, and they are at risk of developing substance abuse problems as a result (including excessive use of prescription medications).

There are a variety of anxiety disorders. The most common are described below, along with specific information about anxiety in children. We also discuss the role of psychologists in diagnosing and treating anxiety disorders.

Panic Disorder

Panic Disorder is characterized by panic attacks, although having a panic attack does not necessarily mean you have panic disorder.

Panic attacks are sudden, intense episodes of fear or discomfort, accompanied by symptoms such as a racing heart, difficulty breathing, fear of dying, chest pain or tightness, feeling like you are choking, feeling dizzy or lightheaded, shaking or trembling, abdominal distress or nausea, chills or hot flushes, sweating, numbness or tingling, fear of losing control or going crazy, feeling like things are not real, or feeling like you are outside yourself.

Panic attacks are very scary, and often make the person think he is having a heart attack. As a result, people with undiagnosed panic disorder often have multiple visits to hospital emergency rooms and medical tests, which are both costly and unpleasant. Worst of all, the person often leaves the hospital without having the panic disorder diagnosed, no better off than when he went in there. It is, of course, a good idea to get emergency medical care if you think you are having a heart attack. But, once you have been medically cleared, it is worth having the possibility of panic disorder evaluated, too. It could save you a lot of grief and money.

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Phobias are characterized by intense anxiety or fear related to particular situations or objects. The situation/object is avoided or is tolerated with extreme discomfort.

Common phobic situations might include:

  • Fear of social situations or situations where you have to perform while others observe. This fear is excessive and hinders performance.
  • Fear of being in public places, crowds, or situations where escape could be difficult or embarrassing (e.g., being in a car, going to the mall, standing in a line). This type of fear often develops in conjunction with panic disorder, but can exist separately, too.
  • Fear of needles, flying, heights, elevators, enclosed spaces, etc.
  • Fear of snakes, bugs, rodents, etc.

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Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is marked by one or both of the following:

  • Persistent, recurrent thoughts, ideas, impulses, or images that are distressing and intrusive. For example, one of the most distressing obsessive thoughts is having the sudden idea of killing a loved one, when this is actually the last thing you would ever do.
  • Feeling compelled to perform certain actions over and over. You experience anxiety, dread, and distress if you are unable to do so. These actions can include physical acts like hand-washing, bathing, putting things in order, checking (e.g., going back more than once to see if the stove is off), etc. Or they can be mental acts like counting, repeating certain words, or praying.

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Generalized Anxiety Disorder

A person with Generalized Anxiety Disorder experiences a lot of anxiety and tends to worry a great deal more than most other people would in the same situation. He can't just "turn off" the anxiety and it is difficult to ignore it or reduce it. The worry tends to interfere with effectively coping with the situation, making things worse instead of better. The person often feels on edge, tense, or restless. Irritability is common, along with difficulty concentrating. Sometimes, the person's mind will simply go blank. Problems with sleep, fatigue, and muscle tension also can occur.

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Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

PTSD can occur after a person has experienced or witnessed a severely traumatic or horrific event, which involved (real or threatened) serious injury, violation, or death. These situations typically are marked by feelings of terror, immobilization, and helplessness.

PTSD is marked by involuntarily reliving the trauma through flashbacks, persistent nightmares, or intrusive thoughts, images, or perceptions that recall the event. The person tends to experience intense emotional and physical reactions to things that remind him of the trauma. Often attempts are made to insulate oneself from things that can provoke those memories, which can lead to withdrawal, isolation, and giving up important activities.

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Anxiety in Children

Children can experience all of the anxiety disorders listed above, and exhibit similar symptoms. However, there are some symptoms that are child-specific, as well.

An anxious child is often "clingy" and has trouble separating from his parents. He might resist going to school, and even bedtime can be difficult. Sometimes, the child wants to sleep with his parents nearly every night.

Anxiety also can manifest as whining, being excessively demanding, and attention-seeking. Sometimes, temper tantrums are seen. An anxious child also might have trouble adapting to changes in his familiar routine.

In the case of PTSD, in particular, you can see separation anxiety, trouble sleeping, tantrums, and regression to more childlike behaviors (e.g., thumb-sucking, bedwetting).

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The Role of the Psychologist


Psychologists can identify the particular type of anxiety disorder the person has. They also can clarify the specific situations that might contribute to the problem. Usually, the history and clinical interview will allow a diagnosis, but sometimes psychological testing can shed light on more difficult cases.


Psychologists use a variety of methods to treat anxiety. Treatment can be relatively brief, although this is affected by the severity of the problem, how long it has existed, the presence of other (comorbid) disorders, and other factors.

Often, anxiety disorders can be controlled by learning specific skills that allow the person to reduce their discomfort, tolerate anxiety-provoking situations, and gain mastery over their fears. When these skills are learned, many people who previously relied on medications, alcohol, or illicit drugs to control their anxiety find they no longer need this chemical control.

One of the skills that people find beneficial is relaxation training, in which the person learns to manage their physical response to a feared situation. This is often the foundation for other coping responses, since this mastery of physical discomfort allows the person to face the anxiety-provoking situation and use other new skills they learn in treatment.

One of these other skills is learning to recognize and control unhelpful, automatic thoughts that can contribute to anxiety. For example, learning to coach yourself through a panic attack and challenge the fear that you are having a heart attack and dying can be a very effective tool.

Psychologists also teach people how to manage their day-to-day responses to their anxiety disorder. For example, someone who engages in ritualistic, compulsive behaviors needs to learn how to eliminate/avoid those behaviors while managing their discomfort.

For trauma-based anxiety responses, treatment can be more involved, and it often is necessary to process the traumatic memories. In some cases, this can mean longer-term therapy is needed.

In general, the skilled psychologist will tailor the treatment to the specific needs of the client.

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Disclaimer:  You know, we see a disclaimer like this in every ad that lawyers put out, and it probably is a good idea for us to use one, too:  "No representation is made that the quality of the psychological services to be performed is greater than the quality of psychological services performed by other psychologists.  The outcome of assessments or psychotherapy, or individual client satisfaction, cannot be guaranteed and is dependent on many factors.  Material on this site regarding symptoms, disorders, and treatment is informational only.  Diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders requires the expertise of a trained professional."

The information on this site regarding psychological disorders and treatment comes from many sources that cannot be credited, simply because they have been integrated over the years into our general knowledge base. However, one important source is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition (1994) published by the American Psychiatric Association.