Anxiety symptoms often get lumped together into one big category, and labeled as “anxiety.” But there are actually many different types of anxiety disorders, that all have very different symptoms. And getting to the bottom of which one (or which ones) might be affecting you is key to finding the right course of treatment.
As clinical psychologist Dr. Paul DePompo tells Bustle, “It is important to know which one you have because there are different treatments for each disorder,” whether it be medication, therapy, lifestyle changes — or a combination of treatments. That’s not to say, though, that you need to diagnose yourself. By keeping track of your symptoms, and discussing them with a therapist, you can start to narrow down the options, and figure out exactly what’s been holding you back.
It can feel isolating, as you deal with your symptoms and seek out treatment. But remember, you’re not alone. “Anxiety affects millions of people every year,” Julie Marie Bowen, MSW, LSW, CTS, CSAC, a psychotherapist at Hope Therapy and Wellness Center, tells Bustle. So if you’ve been struggling with anxiety-related symptoms, know that you’re definitely not alone.
Whether you have generalized anxiety disorder, a social phobia, obsessive compulsive disorder, there is a way to cope with your symptoms, and get back to feeling better. Here, the most common types of anxiety, according to experts.
1Generalized Anxiety Disorder
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is “characterized by persistent worry about many areas of life; relationships, finances, health, and career,” clinical psychologist Dr. Helen Odessky tells Bustle. And it occurs without an obvious cause — you’re just anxious all the time for “no reason.”
“People with GAD see the world as a dangerous place and do not feel the confidence that they can cope with the unexpected, so they are on hyper-alert,” clinical psychologist Dr. Paul DePompo tells Bustle. “With GAD one wrestles so much with the ‘what ifs’ they ruminate to the point where it can impact, school, work, sleep, social fun, etc.”
While we all feel anxious from time to time, anxiety caused by GAD is excessive, has a big impact on overall quality of life, and can even cause physical symptoms, such as nausea, tiredness, or sweating.
The best way to overcome GAD is through therapy, where you’ll learn how to tune out those “what ifs,” Dr. DePompo says, and build up confidence so you’ll know you can handle any situation. Lifestyle changes can also help — such as drinking less coffee, and finding ways to better deal with stress. And, many people choose to take anxiety medication as well.
While it’s common to feel a bit nervous in certain high-pressure situations — such during an important meeting — folks with social phobia, or social anxiety disorder, will find moments like these too uncomfortable to bear.
If you have social anxiety, you might have a fear of “social situations, particularly ones that may result in potential embarrassment or judgment, such as dating, going to a get-together, giving a speech, or participating in a performance,” Dr. Odessky says.
You might not be able to make eye contact or hold a conversation without experiencing extreme anxiety, such as rapid heart beat, sweatiness, stomach issues, or even out-of-body experiences, according to WebMD.
Social anxiety can truly hold you back in life, so it’s important to seek treatment ASAP. One of the most effective ways to overcome social anxiety is through talk therapy, where a trained professional will help build up your confidence. Medication can also do the trick.
3Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
Obsessive compulsive disorder, or OCD, has been moved to its own section of the DSM-5, and out from under the umbrella of other anxiety disorders. But because it’s so anxiety-inducing, it’s important to consider.
“OCD is a complex disorder that involves distressing thoughts (obsessions) and behaviors (compulsions) in response to these thoughts,” Dr. Odessky says. “Usually the person realizes that these rituals are unhelpful, but feels powerless to stop them.”
If you have OCD, you might “engage in repetitive behaviors; such as hand washing, checking, ordering, counting, or repeating words silently in [your] head,” Bowen says. “This desire to engage in these compulsive behaviors is in an effort to reduce anxiety. But the behaviors themselves do not actually assuage anxiety in a realistic manner. These behaviors significantly impact daily functioning and are time consuming.”
One of the most effective ways to overcome OCD is through exposure and response prevention (ERP). “This means you work up a fear ladder of situations that are difficult without using your rituals,” Dr. DePompo says. “You learn to restructure your thoughts and test out engaging in life without the rituals that keep you pseudo-safe.”
Another type of anxiety disorder, known as panic disorder, can come about if you’ve experienced panic attacks in the past. “Panic disorder is the fear that you may get another panic attack,” Dr. DePompo says. You might find yourself avoiding situations that have caused panic attacks in the past, changing your daily routine, or becoming overly-focused on your bodily symptoms.
“You end up doing things that can actually bring [on a panic attack, such as] focusing on your heart rate … [or] avoiding anxiety-provoking stimuli,” Dr. DePompo says. “What happens is you start conditioning the anxiety symptoms and this brings on the panic attacks. The more you fear it, the more power the anxiety takes over you.”
And that’s where therapy can come in handy. If you have panic attacks, or live in fear of having them, let your doctor know. They can set you up with a therapist, who may prescribe talk therapy, medications, and/or breathing techniques.
It’s possible you might suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, after either directly or indirectly experiencing a very stressful event. “This means having the event happen to you, witnessing the event, having the event happen to a close friend or relative, or being involved in the event because of professional responsibilities (i.e. first responders, medics, etc.),” Joshua Klapow, PhD, a clinical psychologist and host of The Kurre and Klapow Show, tells Bustle.
While everyone takes a while to recover after experiencing traumatizing situations, those with PTSD tend to take longer and have more severe side effects. “Symptoms must be present for more than one month,” Dr. Klapow says, and may include things like nightmares, intrusive thoughts, re-experiencing the event, hyper-vigilance, and feeling on edge. You might also feel depressed, sad, guilty, or have sleep problems.
There’s good news though. “PTSD is in most cases very treatable with a combination of behavioral and cognitive behavioral psychotherapy methods and psychotropic medication,” Dr. Klapow says. “PTSD requires professional intervention by mental health professionals trained specifically to address the condition.”
Everyone has a few fears. But if you have a bonafide phobia, you’ll likely experience an “exaggerated or irrational fear of certain situations (dark places, severe weather, enclosed places, heights), people or animals (clowns, dogs, snakes, insects), or objects (foods, weapons, mirrors),” Dr. Klapow says.
The thing about phobias is you know you’re being irrational, but you feel the anxiety anyway. As Dr. Klapow says, “Symptoms include nervousness and anxiety when thinking about the feared situation or object, avoidance of the object at all costs, and feelings of panic in the presence of the object.”
Since phobias can lead to severe limitations in life — you might, for example, not take a job if it requires you to face a certain fear — it is important to seek help. Treatments for phobias include mindfulness strategies, exposure therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and even certain anxiety medications.
Agoraphobia is a type of anxiety that can form all on its own — possibly because it tends to run in families — but it can also crop up most after a series of panic attacks. “Very often individuals will have a panic attack in a public situation and because the panic attack is so aversive, they begin to develop anticipatory anxiety — or fear about being in a public situation where they might have an attack without the ability to leave,” Dr. Klapow says.
This type of anxiety might cause you to feel anxious on public transportation, while in crowded areas, or even in wide open spaces. “The sufferer can develop a general fear or phobia of any … situation where they cannot easily leave,” Dr. Klapow says. “Unlike other phobias, though, agoraphobia is focused on anticipating a panic attack and fearing the setting. The result in the most extreme situations is where the person fails to leave their home, as it often is the only place they feel safe.”
The good news is, there is a way to treat it so you can get on with your life. Exposure therapy can help by getting you out into the world, and learning how to breathe through the anxiety. Medication can also help boost your ability to cope.
If you feel any type of anxiety, let a therapist know. By describing your symptoms, and explaining what you’ve been struggling with, they can figure out which type of anxiety disorder you might have, and prescribe the best course of action.