What is an anxiety disorder?

What is an anxiety disorder?

Page last updated: May 2007

Anxiety is a term used to describe a normal feeling people experience when faced with threat, danger, or when stressed. When people become anxious, they typically feel upset, uncomfortable, and tense.

Feelings of anxiety can be a result of life experiences, such as job loss, relationship breakdown, serious illness, major accident, or the death of someone close. Feeling anxious in these situations is appropriate and usually we feel anxious for only a limited time.

Because feelings of anxiety are so common, it is important to understand the difference between feeling anxious appropriate to a situation and the symptoms of an anxiety disorder.

Anxiety disorders are not just one illness but a group of illnesses characterised by persistent feelings of high anxiety, and extreme discomfort and tension.

People are likely to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder when their level of anxiety becomes so extreme that it significantly interferes with their daily life and stops them doing what they want to do.

Anxiety disorders are the most common form of mental illness, and affect one in 20 people at any given time. They often begin in early adulthood, but can start in childhood or later in life. Women are more likely to experience most anxiety disorders than men.

Anxiety disorders often come out of the blue, with no apparent reason. They are generally accompanied by intense physical sensations, such as breathlessness and palpitations. Other symptoms can include sweating, trembling, feelings of choking, nausea, abdominal distress, dizziness, pins and needles, feelings of losing control and/ or feelings of impending doom.

Anxiety disorders affect the way a person thinks, feels, and behaves and, if not treated, can cause considerable distress and disruption to the person’s life. Fortunately, treatment of anxiety is usually very effective.