Anxiety Disorder 101:Types, Symptoms, Causes & Treatment

Learn about anxiety disorders, their different types, signs, causes and treatments available.

by Calvyn Ee

What are Anxiety Disorders?

Have you had times when you feel worried about something, whether it’s about work or something else that stresses you out? That is anxiety, a perfectly normal emotional response to stressful situations that keep you alert and focused on the task at hand. Anxiety crops up from time to time and can be beneficial to us.

However, if you find your anxiety to be continuous or overwhelming, and you always feel fearful or panicky, there may be a chance you are dealing with an anxiety disorder. Having an anxiety disorder can be detrimental to your wellbeing; you may find it hard to do things you enjoy and more so for tasks that stress you out. You may even avoid social interaction out of fear of worsening your condition.

According to the Fourth National Health Morbidity Survey (NHMS-IV) conducted in 2011, the prevalence rate of generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) among Malaysians was recorded as 1.7 per cent.

An anxiety disorder can interfere with your daily routine, causing an overreaction to external stimuli that triggers your physical, emotional and/or psychological state. This can be a draining affair for you or your loved one.

Types of Anxiety Disorders

There are a few types of anxiety disorders. You should note that certain medical conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder share some features with anxiety disorders.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

GAD is when you experience significant worry, tension or fear about nearly anything that seems to occur for no reason. Sometimes the worry you experience can seem greatly exaggerated. As it persists, it will prevent you from doing your daily activities, paralyzing you with a multitude of fears and doubts about life, work and even social interactions.

On occasions where you are not troubled by assorted worries, you will feel a sense of anxiety even when there’s no immediate cause for concern. For example, you might be worried about your job even if you have been praised by your employers for a good work ethic.

The prevalence of GAD is more common among women than men, according to some research.


Phobias refer to an intense fear of specific situations, objects or one’s surroundings. Having a phobia means even thinking about that particular situation, object or surrounding can cause feelings of intense fear. People will go out of their way just to avoid a situation where their phobia is present or may present itself.

You may have heard of people who have a phobia of snakes (ophidiophobia), or even a fear of heights (acrophobia). Some of these are rational fears, which may stem from a troubling or traumatic experience in the past. Others are less rational and do not match the situation at hand.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), prepared by the American Psychiatric Association, there are five categories of specific phobias:

  • Animal-related phobias (e.g. fear of snakes)
  • Nature related phobias (e.g. fear of thunder)
  • Medical-related phobias (e.g. fear of blood)
  • Specific situations (e.g. fear of heights)
  • Other phobias that do not fit the above categories (e.g. fear of drowning)

Some of those with phobias are aware they are overreacting to their phobias, but they do not have any control over how they react in such situations, or how they can overcome it on their own.

Panic Disorder

Having a panic disorder means you will occasionally get intense, unexpected panic attacks. A panic attack is an overwhelming feeling of dread, fear and terror that strikes without warning. They may surface out of the blue, or when you are dealing with a very stressful situation.

When you have a panic attack, you may experience any of these symptoms besides the overpowering feeling of helplessness and fear:

  • Breaking out in a sweat
  • Your heart feels like it is pounding away
  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea, dizziness
  • Feeling detached from reality/yourself
  • Feeling choked

Panic attacks last between 5 to 20 minutes, but if you experience one for a long period of time, you are recommended to see a medical professional immediately. This is purely a safety precaution, as a panic attack can resemble a heart attack.

Those who have a panic disorder often worry about the possibility of another panic attack. Much like the other anxiety disorders, they would also do everything they can to remove or avoid possible triggers to a panic attack.

Signs and Symptoms of Anxiety Disorders

Almost 30 per cent of the global population will face an anxiety disorder in their lifetime. Most anxiety disorders share similar symptoms, whether they are physical, mental or behavioural in nature.

  • Feeling restless or on edge
  • Excessive nervousness, tension
  • Crankiness/easily irritated
  • Inability to focus
  • Constant feeling of dread and fear
  • Easily fatigued
  • Muscle tension or achiness
  • Numbness
  • Trembling
  • Nausea
  • Digestive problems (i.e. irritable bowel syndrome)
  • Difficulty sleeping (possibly with frequent nightmares)
  • Ritualistic behaviours (i.e. constantly washing hands)

Causes and Risk Factors of Anxiety Disorders

It is unclear what exactly causes anxiety disorders to manifest, but there are a number of factors that contribute to its cause.

  • Genetics (inherited from family)
  • Traumatic experience
  • Chemical imbalance (e.g. caused by severe stress)
  • Brain chemistry (issues with how the brain receives information)
  • Drug or alcohol abuse
  • Medical conditions
  • Severe illness
  • Low self-esteem

You must remember that having a risk factor does not mean you will have an anxiety disorder.

Some studies have shown that you are more likely to develop an anxiety disorder if someone in your family also has one. Genetics makes up one-fourth of the risk of getting an anxiety disorder, with the remaining portion due to environmental factors.

Diagnosing Anxiety Disorders

If you believe you may have symptoms of an anxiety disorder, it is recommended that you see a medical professional to have it diagnosed. There are self-assessment tests available online that can help shed light on what you might be facing, but you must consider the following before taking one:

  1. The self-assessment must be an accredited test, vetted and approved by licensed medical professionals/organizations
  2. The self-assessment is not a substitute for an actual diagnosis
  3. The self-assessment can help inform your doctor on what treatment plan to consider

Your doctor will ask questions pertaining to how you feel and cope with your anxiety, and will also check your medical history for additional clues. They may also consider some medical tests to make sure it is not a medical condition that may be causing symptoms. Medical tests cannot diagnose anxiety disorders.

It is very important to seek help early to get immediate treatment and help you down the road to living a fruitful life.

The doctor will refer you or your loved one to a psychiatrist or another mental health specialist if they find nothing wrong with your overall health. The specialist will help you with accurately diagnosing your symptoms using specialized tools and methods for identifying anxiety disorders and other mental health issues. The evaluation criteria are based on the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5).

Note that a psychiatrist and a psychologist are different roles. Psychiatrists specialise in diagnosing and treating mental health conditions, while psychologists can diagnose anxiety disorder and provide counselling, or psychotherapy.


Getting treatment is important to allow you to live a fruitful life, free from constant worry. Depending on your condition (or that of your loved one), there are a few treatment options that can be considered.


Psychotherapy (or talk therapy) consists of several therapy methods to address mental health conditions, enabling licensed professionals to help improve one’s mental health. You will be assigned to a psychiatrist or psychologist over the course of multiple sessions. Sessions may be done individually, for couples, or even in larger groups such as a family unit. A session’s length will depend on several factors, including the state of your mental health condition(s).

A common and highly effective psychotherapy method is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). CBT aims to help identify behavioural patterns that are harmful to your mental health, and then subsequently change these behaviours over time. These changes are done by identifying if your thoughts are rational or realistic given the circumstances. If they are irrational or unrealistic, your therapist will help you practice ways to turn negative thoughts around and allow you to come up with an appropriate course of action. You will practice these over time throughout sessions, and your therapist may even assign you tasks to do while not undergoing therapy.

There are other forms of psychotherapy as well, including:

  1. Interpersonal therapy (IPT): a short term therapy that helps with understanding underlying interpersonal issues that they may face, such as complicated grief or conflicts with other people. IPT then helps come up with ways to improve communication with others and how to express yourself healthily.
  2. Psychodynamic therapy: seeks to identify how past experiences, repetitive negative thoughts, and/or repressed emotions or memories affect you, and how you can overcome it through improving self-awareness by exploring and understanding these unconscious or repressed thoughts in detail.
  3. Psychoanalysis: a more intense form of therapy, psychoanalysis is the basis for psychodynamic therapy, but here the focus is on the “client-therapist” relationship in uncovering “repressed thoughts, experiences, and emotions” together and learning how to be less resistant to dealing with these issues.
  4. Animal-assisted therapy: involves working closely with a service animal who will provide comfort, help with communication, and even cope with stressful or traumatic memories or situations.

There are many other forms of psychotherapy available, and some may be considered to help treat your anxiety disorder, again based on your medical professional’s assessment.

Antidepressants and Other Medication

Sometimes prescribed together with your therapy sessions, medications will not cure your condition, but they can help improve symptoms to allow you to carry out daily routines uninterrupted.

Prescriptions may include anti-anxiety medicines that help reduce your level of worry and anxiety, but they gradually become less effective over time. These are meant to be used for a short period of time. In other cases, you may be prescribed antidepressants. These change the way the brain uses certain chemicals to alleviate your mood and reduce stress. Antidepressants do not immediately produce results, so it will take some time before you feel its effect on you.

There are also beta-blockers, usually prescribed in cases of high blood pressure, but can help reduce the physical symptoms of anxiety, such as trembling or a rapidly pounding heart.

This is not an exhaustive list of medications, as your doctor will prescribe one based on the circumstances of your, or your loved one’s, condition. Like other medications, these may have side effects of their own, and you should always communicate with your doctor if you feel like you are having any of these side effects. They may switch you to another effective medication that leaves you with fewer or no side effects at all.

Living with Anxiety

Whether you are coping with an anxiety disorder, living with anxiety can be a stressful affair. You will find even simple interactions to be a nerve-wracking time, with your fears and worries consuming you.

It can be hard to relate to the ordeal. There are times when people dismiss your anxiety with statements like, “This is nothing!” or “Just do it!”; they might even refuse to help you when you really need it. These statements are only counterintuitive, even if they are not said with ill-intent. For the most part, they only reinforce a notion that one is not sensitive to what you are facing. You may decide to keep your anxieties to yourself instead of seeking proper help.

Anxiety disorders manifest differently in different people. Some may find themselves extremely fearful and will freeze, unable to do anything to reduce their anxieties. Others may become highly aggravated, irritable and even hard-headed. It becomes important to identify these manifestations, where the source comes from, and what can be done to remove it safely. However, this is easier said than done when the anxiety takes hold of you and prevents any action to be taken.

It may escalate to the point that the anxiety disorder takes you so completely it significantly hinders your motivation to do things, whether it is helping around the house or even stepping out to get the groceries.

If this more or less describes what you feel daily, the best way to overcome it is through proper care and professional help. Anxiety disorders can be crippling, but with the right treatment plan and coping strategies, your anxiety disorder can be managed effectively by reducing the fears you feel towards unfamiliar or uncomfortable situations and allowing you to go about your life.

It is completely understandable to find this difficult to do on your own. Seek help from someone you can trust, whether it is a family member or a childhood friend, and get them to help you through this. Continuous, practical moral support can be very beneficial to dispel any doubts or worries you may have and will allow you to get the help you need.

Helping Someone with Anxiety

Getting through this difficult time requires patience, openness and compassion. Here are some tips that will help you overcome your anxiety disorder, or help someone you know who is going through it.

Educating Yourself

Knowing about anxiety disorders, the way they manifest, and the symptoms it presents can go a long way to help understand what someone is going through, and how to provide adequate support for them. It also helps dispel stigmas and inaccurate ideas about anxiety disorders, so you can also play a part in educating others to quell prevailing misconceptions.

Patience is Key

Those with anxiety should not be pressured into seeking treatment or be forced to discuss about their condition. It can be easy to feel impatient when the process feels like it is “three steps forwards, four steps back.” Rushing the healing process can have unintended consequences. Instead, be present at all times and be mindful of how you approach them. They will appreciate you sticking out for them despite the difficulty, and it can help them see that they can indeed get through this with your help.

Ask How to Help

You may not have all the answers. Or, you may think you have the answers, but they do not seem to be working. Sometimes it pays to ask them how they would like to be helped. Everyone copes with their anxieties differently, and some may have some insights about their anxiety and how it manifests and how it impedes them. By asking what they need or how you can help them out, you can help them feel like they are retaking their life one step at a time.

Being There

In some cases, a very anxious person may find it very hard to even think about setting foot outside the house. By being there for them, you will help put them at ease in discomforting situations like going out to crowded places. This also applies to accompanying them for therapy sessions (if both the person and the therapist agree) or support group meetings.

Guidance and Support

Be mindful of the level of support you are giving. Do not take over tasks for them when they avoid something that makes them uncomfortable. This only increases their avoidant behaviour and will not help them recover. Guide them through the process as support does not mean doing things on their behalf. Be aware of the kind of support you provide and adjust accordingly to the situation.

Lifestyle Changes

Regular exercise, a healthy diet and learning meditation techniques can also be very helpful in staying healthy and improving your mood. Remember to start small and slowly increase the amount of intensity as time goes by. Doing it together can also make for fun-filled sessions. It is equally important to avoid excessive alcohol consumption and drug use as these can exacerbate the anxiety disorder and lead to unpleasant scenarios that are best avoided.

Take Care of Yourself

As a caregiver, it is important to take care of yourself just as much as you are caring for others. Some days may be more difficult than and your ultimate goal as a caregiver should be to help them through their journey and not the responsibility of healing them. Set boundaries to ensure that the support you are providing is not leading you to burnout and share the pressure with other loved ones or mutual friends so they can help you out.

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About the Writer
Calvyn Ee
Calvyn is an aspiring author, poet and storyteller. He spends his time reading, gaming and building stories with his action figure photography.
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