Everyone experiences anxiety at some point, like a spike of stress before giving a speech or prolonged fear when driving in unsafe conditions. These anxious feelings have a purpose—they help us stay alert and cautious as well as facilitating the “flight” response in harmful situations. This heightened state should not last long; however, if someone experiences overwhelming anxiety or chronic symptoms while going about their day, they may have an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders interfere with daily functioning, impairing communication, psychological well-being, relationships, school/work performance, and even physical health.
Common anxiety disorders
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
GAD leads to prolonged, extreme worry about many aspects of daily life. This worry and stress is often overwhelming and intrusive, clouding the mind and impairing one’s ability to complete tasks, eat consistently, or sleep. Physical symptoms include fatigue from worry, headaches, tension, and nausea.
Panic Disorder (PD)
PD is associated with semi-frequent to frequent panic attacks and feelings of acute fear, often without warning or noticeable stimuli. These panic attacks can have intense physical symptoms such as chest pain, dizziness, and shortness of breath.
Social Phobia/Social Anxiety Disorder
Social anxiety disorder is characterized by an intense fear and aversion regarding social interaction. Often, people experience unfounded worries that they will be humiliated, ignored, or hated by others. Depressive symptoms and panic attacks are often co-morbid with severe social anxiety.
Anxiety disorders by the numbers
In the US alone, around over 40 million (18%) of people over 18 experience anxiety disorders.1 Globally, it is estimated that 284 million have anxiety disorders, comprising anywhere from 2.5–7% of each nation’s population, but the data is significantly lacking in many countries.2
Over 6.5 million adults (3%) of the US population experiences GAD, and about 5.7% US adults experience it at some point in their lives. Notably, less than half of those with GAD receive treatment.3
PD affects approximately 6 million adults (2.7%) in the US.4
Over 15 million adults (6.8%) in the US are affected by social anxiety. The average age of onset is 13, but data suggests that at least 36% of people with social anxiety experience symptoms as early as 10.5
Understanding the impact of anxiety disorders
While anxiety disorders are prevalent and can be very damaging, they are treatable. There are a variety of treatment options for people with anxiety disorders, including psychotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, anti-anxiety medication, support groups, and holistic stress management strategies.
So, anxiety is prevalent but treatable—why are we talking about it?
Despite numerous therapeutic techniques that are available, a shockingly low number of people are receiving routine treatment. There are a number of barriers to treatment:6
- Poor mental health literacy
- Financial hardship
- Uncertainty regarding treatment availability
- Social stigma
Any of these factors could impact an individual’s likelihood of receiving treatment. We’ve talked about social stigma and its effects on communities and individuals [JG1] with mental health problems, and research shows that social stigma can significantly impact the other factors: making it less likely that insurance coverage for mental health care is available in some areas, impeding the dissemination of information on mental health, and impairing people’s ability to navigate treatment and practitioner selection.
Those with anxiety disorders are prone to experiencing deterioration of mental well-being as a product of chronic stress and worry, which can undermine cognitive function and healthy relationship building as well as lead to persistent physical distress and discomfort. Common anxiety symptoms—irritability, tension, sleep deprivation, and impaired concentration—can have obvious negative impacts on those close to someone with anxiety.
The long-term effects of anxiety include increased risk of heart problems, decreased immune function, memory problems, and insomnia. Additionally, barriers to treatment are often associated with the development of unhealthy coping practices, such as alcohol and drug use to manage symptoms.
The effects of anxiety extend beyond the individual; whole communities can suffer as a result of under-treatment for common mental health disorders.7 Some scholars believe that our digital age is leading to a rise in anxiety symptoms and disorders, which may lead to macro-scale breakdowns in trust and constructive communication skills.8,9 When people experience debilitating worry that makes it difficult to interact at work or in school, their peers can also suffer. It is known that anxiety can make it difficult for people to maintain relationships and friendships, often leading to isolation; communities with high levels of isolation are often considered to be worse-off than well-connected communities.
How do we handle the anxiety epidemic as a society?
One of the most critical things we can do to help people with anxiety is combat mental health stigma. It is important for people who experience mental disorders to talk openly with people they trust and be taken seriously. Supporting friends, family, and community members with anxiety disorders takes many different shapes—listening to their needs comes first.
If you experience anxiety, consider adding mindfulness practices or light exercise to your daily regimen. Anxiety can feel overwhelming, but taking small steps toward managing physical symptoms and emotional responses to stressful stimuli can go far in supporting your well-being.