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What Are the Types of Anxiety Disorders?

Symptoms, Triggers, and Evidence-Based Treatment Options

Key Takeaways

  1. Anxiety disorders are very common, affecting around 20% of Americans and Canadians at some point. These include generalized anxiety, panic attacks, phobias, and more.
  2. Each anxiety disorder has its own symptoms, but all involve excessive, irrational fear and dread that interferes with normal life.
  3. Anxiety disorders are frequently connected to genetic risks, brain chemistry, trauma, stress, and other mental health conditions. Identifying personal risk factors is important.
  4. In some cases, effective treatment is available through cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), exposure therapy, stress management techniques, mindfulness, and medication.
  5. Seeking help from a licensed therapist is crucial for overcoming anxiety disorders. The right therapeutic approach tailored to the individual can provide the skills and resources to regain control. 
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    Nearly 1 in 5 North Americans will struggle with debilitating anxiety severe enough to be diagnosed as a disorder. When worry and fear become excessive, uncontrollable, and start interfering with normal life, professional help may be needed.

    The most common anxiety disorders include generalized anxiety, panic attacks, social anxiety, phobias, agoraphobia and separation anxiety. While symptoms vary, they all share features of irrational, disproportionate dread and avoidance that hampers functioning.

    Effective treatment starts with distinguishing the type of anxiety disorder based on the characteristics and disturbances involved. This guide covers the major forms, from obsessive worry to paralyzing terror, so you can take the first step toward reclaiming your peace.

    Let’s look at the major types of anxiety disorders.

    Generalized Anxiety Disorder

    Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) involves excessive worry about everyday things. Researchers at the University of Toronto found that disrupted communication between the amygdala and prefrontal cortex may contribute to excessive worry in GAD (Maheu et al., 2019).

    • The anxiety and worry are disproportionate to actual circumstances.
    • Physical symptoms may include:
      • Restlessness
      • Fatigue
      • Muscle tension
      • Difficulty concentrating
    • GAD is one of the most common anxiety disorders.
    • The constant worry can severely impact the quality of life.

    For example, Michelle constantly worries about her kids’ safety and finances, even without real problems. This causes:

    • Muscle tension
    • Insomnia
    • Trouble concentrating at work
    • She feels anxious and on-edge daily.

    Panic Disorder

    Panic disorder involves sudden, unexpected panic and occasional anxiety attacks. Panic attacks in the context of Panic Disorder are more severe than those in social anxiety, and this may be driven by cognitive disturbances during those attacks.

    • Physical symptoms may include:
    • There is an intense fear of future attacks.
    • It affects around 5% of Americans at some point.

    For example, James experiences repeated panic attacks while driving. He has:

    • Heart palpitations
    • Dizziness
    • Feelings of impending doom.
    • He now fears having an attack each time he drives.

    Treatment involves therapy and sometimes medications. The goals are to:

    • Understand triggers
    • Learn coping strategies
    • Reduce fear of future attacks
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    Social Anxiety Disorder

    Social anxiety disorder involves extreme fear around social situations. Although the exact diagnostic boundaries for social phobia are difficult to determine, it can be concluded that social anxiety is a distressing problem for a considerable proportion of the general population.

    • Individuals are worried about being embarrassed, judged, or humiliated.
    • It leads to avoidance of social events like meetings, parties, and speaking in public.

    For example, Veena avoids any social situation with public speaking because of an intense fear of sounding inarticulate. She worries about being embarrassed or judged.

    Around 7% of Americans experience a social anxiety disorder during their lifetime.

    • Selective mutism is an extreme form where people cannot speak at all in social settings.

    Treatment involves therapy, social skills training, and sometimes medication. Goals include:

    • Managing fears of judgement
    • Facing feared social situations
    • Building communication skills

    Specific Phobias

    A specific phobia involves an intense, irrational fear of a particular object or situation. 

    • The fear is disproportionate to the actual danger posed.
    • The person goes to great lengths to avoid the phobic stimulus.

    For example, no matter how often Sara flies, she has an intense fear of airplane travel and avoids it altogether. She realizes her fear is excessive but cannot control it.

    Specific phobias are very common, affecting over 12% of people. Examples include fears of flying, heights, animals, injections, and more.

    Treatment involves exposure therapy and learning coping strategies to face fears. Goals include:

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    Separation Anxiety

    Separation anxiety disorder involves excessive fear or anxiety when separated from home or loved ones. Separation anxiety is associated with increased amygdala responsiveness and volume, and positive associations were found between separation anxiety and functional coupling of the amygdala with areas involved in visual processes and attention, which could help to understand and treat (adult) separation anxiety.

    • Most common in childhood but can affect adults too.
    • This leads to avoidance of being away from attachment figures.

    For example, 7-year-old Leila experiences extreme distress and anxiety whenever she is away from her parents, like at school. She has trouble sleeping over at friends’ houses.

    Around 4-5% of children and adolescents have separation anxiety disorder.

    Treatment often involves:

    • Therapy to identify triggers
    • Gradually increasing separation
    • Teaching coping techniques
    • Parent education and support

    Performance Anxiety

    Performance anxiety disorder involves excessive fear related to activities with an element of performance or evaluation. 

    • Concern about failing, embarrassment, or judgment contributes to intense anxiety.
    • This leads to avoidance of activities like:
      • Sports, music, or dance performances
      • Speaking in meetings or giving presentations
      • Test-taking situations

    For example, Jackson experiences intense anxiety before sports matches or when giving presentations for fear of failure or judgment. He has trouble sleeping the nights before and feels ill from the anxiety.

    Treatment focuses on:

    • Reframing negative thoughts about failure
    • Exposure therapy to perform despite anxiety
    • Relaxation and coping methods before events


    Hypochondria, also called illness anxiety disorder, involves an intense fear of having a serious medical illness.

    • Individuals misinterpret normal bodily sensations as signs of sickness.
    • Leads to:
      • Frequent doctor visits
      • Repeated medical testing
      • Constant self-examination

    For example, despite typical test results, Vera constantly worries she has illnesses like cancer whenever she feels unwell. She checks for symptoms obsessively.

    Around 5% of people experience health anxiety significant enough to disrupt their lives.

    Treatment focuses on:

    • Identifying realistic vs exaggerated worries
    • Learning cognitive restructuring
    • Minimizing obsessive health-monitoring
    • Gaining perspective on health status

    Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

    Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is characterized by intrusive, unwanted thoughts and urges (obsessions) that trigger intensely distressing anxiety. As a result, individuals feel compelled to repeatedly perform rituals and behaviours (compulsions) to relieve anxiety symptoms temporarily.

    OCD affects about 1-3% of Canadians, typically starting in the late teens or early adulthood. Research by CAMH suggests OCD may arise from a disrupted neural circuit between the orbitofrontal cortex, anterior cingulate cortex, and basal ganglia regions. Both psychotherapy and medications are effective treatments.

    For example, Tina is obsessed with the fear of accidentally poisoning people when she cooks. She deals with the intense anxiety by engaging in time-consuming food safety rituals and repeatedly sanitizing her kitchen. Tina realizes her behaviour is excessive but cannot control her OCD compulsions.


    Agoraphobia involves an intense fear of situations where escape might be difficult or help unavailable.

    • Often stems from a history of experiencing panic attacks.
    • This leads to avoidance of situations like:
      • Using public transportation
      • Being in open or crowded spaces
      • Leaving home alone

    For example, after experiencing panic attacks, Rob fears places he can’t easily leave, like trains or tunnels. He avoids these situations completely.

    Agoraphobia affects around 2% of adults in their lifetimes.

    Treatment focuses on:

    • Managing panic attack triggers
    • Facing feared situations slowly
    • Changing thoughts about the inability to escape

    Risk Factors

    Certain factors can increase the risk of developing an anxiety disorder. These risk factors include genetics, personality type, trauma or adverse experiences, chronic stress, and other physical or mental health conditions. A close family member with an anxiety disorder raises your risk, suggesting a genetic link.

    People with traits like shyness or neuroticism are also at higher risk. Exposure to trauma, abuse, or significant stress can contribute to anxiety, as can chronic medical conditions or other mental health issues like depression. Substance abuse problems and withdrawal may act as triggers too.

    Identifying both biological and environmental risk factors is important, as anxiety disorders often stem from a combination of hereditary and lifestyle factors interacting. Being aware of increased vulnerability can help with early intervention and prevention.

    How are these anxiety disorders treated?

    The good news is anxiety disorders are very treatable with professional help and various therapies. Treatment focuses on relieving symptoms, managing stress, and improving daily functioning.

    • Common approaches include:
      • Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)
      • Exposure therapy
      • Mindfulness-based therapies
      • Stress management
      • Medication, in some cases

    Cognitive behavioural therapy helps identify and change negative thought patterns and behaviours contributing to anxiety.

    • Exposure therapy gradually exposes people to feared situations or objects in a controlled setting.

    Mindfulness practices teach staying present and managing worrying thoughts.

    • Stress management provides tools to reduce triggers and manage symptoms.

    The most effective approach often combines therapy, lifestyle changes, and self-help strategies tailored to the individual. With support from a mental health professional, those suffering from anxiety disorders can overcome their fears and regain control of their lives.


    No, dissociative disorders are not considered a type of anxiety disorder. They are categorized separately in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). While anxiety may be a symptom of some dissociative disorders, they are distinct in their core features.

    The DSM-5 recognizes several types of anxiety disorders, including Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Panic Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder, Specific Phobias, Agoraphobia, and Separation Anxiety Disorder. Additionally, disorders such as Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) were previously classified under anxiety disorders but are now categorized separately, although they still have anxiety-related symptoms.

    No, eating disorders are not classified as a type of anxiety disorder. They are categorized separately in the DSM-5. However, it's important to note that anxiety disorders often co-occur with eating disorders and can share similar underlying psychological mechanisms.

    No matter what you are struggling with, we are here for you.

    No matter what you are struggling with, we are here for you.

    Picture of Pareen Sehat MC, RCC

    Pareen Sehat MC, RCC

    Pareen’s career began in Behaviour Therapy, this is where she developed a passion for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy approaches. Following a Bachelor of Arts with a major in Psychology she pursued a Master of Counselling. Pareen is a Registered Clinical Counsellor (RCC) with the BC Association of Clinical Counsellors. She specializes in CBT and Lifespan Integrations approaches to anxiety and trauma. She has been published on major online publications such as - Yahoo, MSN, AskMen, PsychCentral, Best Life Online, and more.


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