Why It Matters: Anxiety Disorders

Why learn about anxiety disorders?

What is anxiety? Most of us feel some anxiety almost every day of our lives. Maybe you have an important test coming up for school. Or maybe there’s that big game next Saturday, or that first date with someone new you are hoping to impress. Anxiety can be defined as a negative mood state that is accompanied by bodily symptoms such as increased heart rate, muscle tension, a sense of unease, and apprehension about the future (APA, 2013; Barlow, 2002).

Man clutching his face and peeking through his hands as if nervous or scared.

Figure 1. While everyone may experience some level of anxiety at one time or another, those with anxiety disorders experience it consistently and so intensely that it has a significantly negative impact on their quality of life. [Image: Bada Bing, https://goo.gl/aawyLi, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, https://goo.gl/Toc0ZF]

Although anxiety is closely related to fear, the two states possess important differences. Fear involves an instantaneous reaction to an imminent threat, whereas anxiety involves apprehension, avoidance, and cautiousness regarding a potential threat, danger, or other negative event (Craske, 1999). While anxiety is unpleasant to most people, it is important to our health, safety, and well-being. Anxiety motivates us to take actions—such as preparing for exams, watching our weight, showing up to work on time—that enable us to avert potential future problems. Anxiety also motivates us to avoid certain things—such as running up debts and engaging in illegal activities—that could lead to future trouble. Most individuals’ level and duration of anxiety approximates the magnitude of the potential threat they face. For example, suppose a student who came to the United States as a “Dreamer” (someone whose parents didn’t lawfully immigrate) is concerned about the possibility of being unable to continue in the university program or of losing access to academic financial aid due to changes and litigation around the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. This person likely would experience anxiety of greater intensity and duration than would a 21-year-old junior who entered college as a birthright citizen.

Some people experience anxiety that is excessive, persistent, and greatly out of proportion to the actual threat; if one’s anxiety has a disruptive influence on one’s life, this is a strong indicator that the individual is experiencing an anxiety disorder. Those with an anxiety disorder may become so overwhelmed and distracted by anxiety that they actually fail their test, fumble the ball, or spend the whole date fidgeting and avoiding eye contact. If anxiety begins to interfere in a person’s life in a significant way, it is considered a disorder.

As a group, anxiety disorders are common: approximately 25–30% of the U.S. population meets the criteria for at least one anxiety disorder during their lifetime (Kessler et al., 2005). Also, these disorders appear to be much more common in women than they are in men; within a 12-month period, around 23% of women and 14% of men will experience at least one anxiety disorder (National Comorbidity Survey, 2007). Anxiety disorders are the most frequently occurring class of mental disorders and are often comorbid with each other and with other mental disorders (Kessler, Ruscio, Shear, & Wittchen, 2009).

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), classifies anxiety disorders as panic disorder, agoraphobia, generalized anxiety disorder, specific phobia, social anxiety disorder, separation anxiety disorder, selective mutism, substance/medication-induced anxiety disorder, and anxiety disorder due to another medical condition. Read on to learn more about these anxiety disorders.

WaTch It

This CrashCourse video provides an overview of the major anxiety disorders we will learn about in this module. Note that the video also mentions obsessive-compulsive disorder, which we will cover in a separate section.

You can view the transcript for “OCD and Anxiety Disorders: Crash Course Psychology #29” here (opens in new window).