Feeling nervous or anxious at times is normal, especially if you’re going through a stressful period at work or home. However, there’s a vast difference between typical moments of nervousness in response to pressure and an anxiety disorder—intense, persistent, excessive worry and fear that interferes with your ability to function at work, at home, or in social situations. Adult anxiety is far from rare—according to the National Institute of Mental Health, 19.1% of U.S. adults experienced an anxiety disorder in the last year, and 31.1% of adults have experienced an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives. While it’s all too likely that you or someone you care about will be affected, adult anxiety can be effectively treated.
It isn’t fully understood what causes anxiety disorders, although most experts believe that multiple factors play a role. Genetic predisposition, your personality type, traumatic experiences, and prolonged or extreme stress can all interact to bring on anxiety that is difficult to control and out of proportion to the stressors you face. For example, if you’ve felt more anxious since the pandemic, you’re not alone. A recent study shows that one in three adults worldwide was living with an anxiety disorder during the COVID-19 pandemic due to uncertainty, disruptions in daily routines and health concerns for themselves or loved ones. Understanding what adult anxiety can look like and how best to respond can help keep anxiety from limiting the possibilities of your life.
Signs and Symptoms of Anxiety
People suffering from anxiety disorders may experience a range of physical symptoms, as well as anxious thoughts and behaviors. Possible physical signs include a racing heart or heart palpitations, shortness of breath, nausea, diarrhea, sweating, shakiness, edginess or restlessness, dizziness, lightheadedness, insomnia, and/or becoming fatigued easily. Characteristic thought patterns can include a sense of impending danger or doom, racing thoughts, an inability to concentrate on anything except the present worry, a constant belief that the worst will happen, and persistent worry that is difficult to control. This physical and mental discomfort leads to common anxiety behaviors such as avoiding feared situations and social withdrawal.
People suffering from anxiety may be reluctant to socialize, afraid to talk on the phone, fearful of going out, and scared to interact in even simple ways with other people, such as speaking to a cashier at a store. When these symptoms of adult anxiety persist and/or get worse over time, interfering with your work, your relationships, or ordinary daily activities, you shouldn’t wait to seek help in the hope that they’ll go away on their own.
Types of Anxiety Disorders
The type of anxiety disorder someone experiences may be differentiated by the situation that triggers their anxiety and their symptoms. Some types are:
- Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD): Persistent, excessive worrying about everyday issues over a period of months or years, producing a sense of fear or dread that interferes with daily life.
- Panic disorder: Regular attacks of sudden fear producing intense physical symptoms in the absence of any real danger or apparent cause.
- Social anxiety: Intense and ongoing fear of being watched or negatively judged by other people. Some sufferers may experience fear or anxiety in all social settings, while others have difficulty only in certain situations, such as eating in front of others or performing or speaking publicly (performance anxiety).
- Separation anxiety: Extreme fear or distress at being separated or the thought of being separated from a loved one. While some separation anxiety is a normal stage of development for very young children, as an adult disorder it can prevent normal functioning at work or home when the sufferer is away from their spouse, child, or other loved one.
Of course, not every case of anxiety fits neatly into a single category. Anxiety may also occur alongside other mental health disorders, such as depression or substance abuse. While this may complicate a diagnosis, it doesn’t mean that anxiety can’t be treated.
Adult Anxiety Treatment
It’s common for people to believe they can’t control anxiety or their tendency to have panic attacks and that it’s just a problem they’ll have to learn to live with. In fact, that isn’t the case at all—many people are able to move past the symptoms of anxiety disorders and learn to improve their quality of life. If your attempts to manage anxiety on your own aren’t working, it is possible to get effective help.
One of the first steps should be to consult your primary care physician for a physical evaluation. Sometimes symptoms of anxiety can be related to an underlying health condition or medication you’re taking, so it’s best to rule that out as a possible cause or contributing factor. Properly treating any such medical condition may help alleviate anxiety.
If anxiety doesn’t spring from a physical cause, consulting a mental health professional should be your next move. Psychotherapy helps people with anxiety disorders identify the causes of their worries and fears and develop healthier coping mechanisms and skills to overcome anxiety. Two types of psychotherapy that can be effective for people with anxiety disorders are:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): This type of short-term therapy pairs cognitive and behavioral approaches to recognize our existing patterns of thought and behavior and examine how they can hold us back. Patients then learn how to change those thought patterns and habits. CBT sets specific goals that are meaningful for each patient and teaches them skills to take action to achieve them.
- Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT): DBT is a modified form of CBT developed to help people develop mindfulness, tolerate distress, regulate their emotions, and improve their interpersonal effectiveness. It can include group therapy for behavioral skills as well as individual therapy sessions. DBT validates a patient’s experience while gently challenging them to make positive change.
Lifestyle changes can also have a positive impact on getting anxiety under control when paired with psychotherapy. Regular exercise, getting adequate sleep, healthy eating, avoiding alcohol or recreational drugs, and cutting back on stimulants like caffeine can all be beneficial. In addition, relaxation techniques such as meditation or breathing exercises can help keep stress at manageable levels. Your therapist can help plan a mix of treatments for anxiety best tailored to your unique situation and needs.
Reclaiming Your Life from Anxiety
When anxiety takes hold, it can gradually take over your life, isolating and limiting you. At the SF Stress & Anxiety Center, our therapists can help you overcome your anxiety and develop psychological resilience so you can thrive in your professional and personal life. We offer both in-person and online therapy sessions to keep treatment accessible.
To get started, schedule a free introductory phone call with one of our compassionate Care Coordinators to be matched with the right specialist.