Anxiety is a common and normal occurrence. However, a chronic, high level of
anxiety indicates an anxiety disorder.
Common Anxiety Disorders
Some of the more common anxiety disorders include:
Generalized Anxiety Disorder: A person with
generalized anxiety disorder experiences persistent and
excessive anxiety or worry that lasts at least six months.
Specific Phobia: A person who has specific
phobia experiences intense anxiety when exposed to a particular
object or situation. The person often avoids the feared object or situation
because of a desire to escape the anxiety associated with it.
Social Phobia: A person who has social
phobia experiences intense anxiety when exposed to certain
kinds of social or performance situations. As a result, the person often
avoids these types of situations.
Panic Disorder and Agoraphobia: A person with panic
disorder experiences recurrent, unexpected panic attacks, which
cause worry or anxiety. During a panic attack, a person has
symptoms such as heart palpitations, sweating, trembling, dizziness, chest
pain, and fear of losing control, going crazy, or dying. Panic disorder can
occur with or without agoraphobia. Agoraphobia involves anxiety
about losing control in public places, being in situations from which escape
would be difficult or embarrassing, or being in places where there might be
no one to help if a panic attack occurred.
Obsessive-compulsive Disorder: A person with
obsessive-compulsive disorder experiences obsessions,
compulsions, or both. Obsessions are ideas, thoughts, impulses,
or images that are persistent and cause anxiety or distress. A person
usually feels that the obsessions are inappropriate but uncontrollable.
Compulsions are repetitive behaviors that help to prevent
or relieve anxiety.
Post–traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): A person with this
disorder persistently re-experiences a highly traumatic event and avoids
stimuli associated with the trauma. Symptoms include increased arousal such
as insomnia, irritability, difficulty concentrating, hypervigilance, or
exaggerated startle response.
Roots of Anxiety Disorders
Many different interactive factors influence the development of anxiety
Many biological factors can contribute to the onset of anxiety
Genetic predisposition: Twin studies suggest that
there may be genetic predispositions to anxiety disorders. Researchers
typically use concordance rates to describe the likelihood that a
disorder might be inherited. A concordance rate indicates
the percentage of twin pairs who share a particular disorder. Research
has shown that identical twins have a higher concordance rate for
anxiety disorders than fraternal twins.
Differing sensitivity: Some research suggests that
people differ in sensitivity to anxiety. People who are highly sensitive
to the physiological symptoms of anxiety react with even more anxiety to
these symptoms, which sets off a worsening spiral of anxiety that can
result in an anxiety disorder.
Neurotransmitters: Researchers believe there is a
link between anxiety disorders and disturbances in neural circuits that
use the neurotransmitters GABA and serotonin. GABA limits nerve cell
activity in the part of the brain associated with anxiety. People who do
not produce enough GABA or whose brains do not process it normally may
feel increased anxiety. Inefficient processing of serotonin may also
contribute to anxiety.
Brain damage: Some researchers have suggested that
damage to the hippocampus can contribute to PTSD symptoms.
Conditioning and Learning
Research shows that conditioning and learning also play a role in
Classical conditioning: People can acquire anxiety
responses, especially phobias, through classical conditioning and then
maintain them through operant conditioning. A neutral stimulus becomes
associated with anxiety by being paired with an anxiety-producing
stimulus. After this classical conditioning process has occurred, a
person may begin to avoid the conditioned anxiety-producing stimulus.
This leads to a decrease in anxiety, which reinforces the avoidance
through an operant conditioning process. For example, a near drowning
experience might produce a phobia of water. Avoiding oceans, pools, and
ponds decreases anxiety about water and reinforces the behavior of
Evolutionary predisposition: Researchers such as
Martin Seligman have proposed that people may be more
likely to develop conditioned fears to certain objects and situations.
According to this view, evolutionary history biologically prepares
people to develop phobias about ancient dangers, such as snakes and
Observational learning: People also may
develop phobias through observational learning. For example,
children may learn to be afraid of certain objects or situations by
observing their parents’ behavior in the face of those objects or
Some researchers have suggested that people with certain styles of
thinking are more susceptible to anxiety disorders than others. Such people
have increased susceptibility for several reasons:
- They tend to see threats in harmless situations.
- They focus too much attention on situations that they perceive to
- They tend to recall threatening information better than
The personality trait of neuroticism is associated with a higher
likelihood of having an anxiety disorder.