As with many mental health conditions, the exact cause of anxiety disorders isn’t fully understood. Life experiences such as traumatic events appear to trigger anxiety disorders in people who are already prone to becoming anxious. Inherited traits also can be a factor.
For some people, anxiety is linked to an underlying health issue. In some cases, anxiety signs and symptoms are the first indicators of a medical illness. If your doctor suspects your anxiety may have a medical cause, he or she may order lab tests and other tests to look for signs of a problem.
Examples of medical problems that can be linked to anxiety include:
- Heart disease
- Thyroid problems, such as hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism
- Drug abuse or withdrawal
- Withdrawal from alcohol, anti-anxiety medications (benzodiazepines) or other medications
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Rare tumors that produce certain “fight-or-flight” hormones
- Premenstrual syndrome
- Sometimes anxiety can be a side effect of certain medications.
It’s more likely that your anxiety may be due to an underlying medical condition if:
- You don’t have any blood relatives (such as a parent or sibling) with an anxiety disorder
- You didn’t have an anxiety disorder as a child
- You don’t avoid certain things or situations because of anxiety
- You have a sudden occurrence of anxiety that seems unrelated to life events and you didn’t have a previous history of anxiety
Common anxiety signs and symptoms include:
- Feeling nervous
- Feeling powerless
- Having a sense of impending danger, panic or doom
- Having an increased heart rate
- Breathing rapidly (hyperventilation)
- Feeling weak or tired
- Trouble concentrating or thinking about anything other than the present worry
Several types of anxiety disorders exist:
- Separation anxiety disorder is a childhood disorder characterized by anxiety that is excessive for the developmental level and related to separation from parents or others who have parental roles.
- Selective mutism is a consistent failure to speak in certain situations, such as school, even when you can speak in other situations, such as at home with close family members. This can interfere with school, work and social functioning.
- Specific phobias are characterized by major anxiety when you’re exposed to a specific object or situation and a desire to avoid it. Phobias provoke panic attacks in some people.
- Social anxiety disorder (social phobia) involves high levels of anxiety, fear and avoidance of social situations due to feelings of embarrassment, self-consciousness and concern about being judged or viewed negatively by others.
- Panic disorder involves repeated episodes of sudden feelings of intense anxiety and fear or terror that reach a peak within minutes (panic attacks). You may have feelings of impending doom, shortness of breath, heart palpitations or chest pain.
- Agoraphobia is anxiety about, and often avoidance of, places or situations where you might feel trapped or helpless if you start to feel panicky or experience embarrassing symptoms, such as losing control.
- Generalized anxiety disorder includes persistent and excessive anxiety and worry about activities or events — even ordinary, routine issues. The worry is usually out of proportion to the actual circumstance, is difficult to control and interferes with your ability to focus on current tasks. It often occurs along with other anxiety disorders or depression.
- Substance-induced anxiety disorder is characterized by prominent symptoms of anxiety or panic that are a direct result of abusing drugs, taking medications, being exposed to a toxic substance or withdrawal from drugs.
- Anxiety disorder due to a medical condition includes prominent symptoms of anxiety or panic that are directly caused by a physical health problem.
- Specified anxiety disorder and unspecified anxiety disorder are terms for anxiety or phobias that don’t meet the exact criteria for any other anxiety disorders but are significant enough to be distressing and disruptive.
When to see a doctor
See your doctor if:
- You feel like you’re worrying too much and it’s interfering with your work, relationships or other parts of your life
- Your fear, worry or anxiety is upsetting to you
- You feel depressed, have trouble with alcohol or drug use, or have other mental health concerns along with anxiety
- You think your anxiety could be linked to a physical health problem
- You have suicidal thoughts or behaviors — seek emergency treatment immediately
- Your worries may not go away on their own, and they may actually get worse over time if you don’t seek help. See your doctor or a mental health provider before your anxiety gets worse. It may be easier to treat if you get help early.