Anxiety disorders are a group of disorders that can affect adults, adolescents and children. Anxiety disorders overwhelm people with chronic feelings of anxiety and fear.

Unlike periods of anxiety that everyone feels because they are caused by a stressful event, anxiety disorders are chronic, and if not treated, can disrupt a person's life.

Fortunately, effective treatments do exist—and early diagnosis may aid early recovery, prevent the disorder from getting worse and possibly prevent accompanying depression. Yet, because many people don't understand these disorders, only 25 percent of those suffering from them seek treatment.

Each anxiety disorder is distinct from the others, but all are marked by excessive, irrational fear and dread.

Here are the most common anxiety disorders.

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)

GAD is characterized by at least six months of a constant state of exaggerated tension or worry not related to any particular problem or event. A person with GAD is always anticipating disaster, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Sometimes the source of worry is evident (work, family, money) and other times it is not.

Physical symptoms often accompany the anxiety, including fatigue, headache, muscle ache or tension, trembling, twitching, irritability, nausea, breathlessness, and sweating. People with GAD can't seem to relax. They have difficulty concentrating, as well as a hard time falling asleep, NIMH says.

GAD affects twice as many women as men. It can occur at any age, but most often appears in childhood or middle age, NIMH says. It also almost never occurs by itself; a person with GAD often has another anxiety disorder, depression or is a substance abuser.

Panic disorder

Panic disorder typically strikes in late adolescence or young adulthood. It is twice as common in women as in men. People with this problem experience panic attacks—incidents of severe anxiety that occur unpredictably. The attacks can occur any time, even during sleep, according to NIMH. The attacks tend to reach their peak about 10 minutes after they start, but some can last longer.

Symptoms of a panic attack include pounding heart, sweating, weakness, lightheadedness, or dizziness. Other symptoms: nausea, chest pain, a sense of unreality, and fear of impending doom, NIMH says. A person having a panic attack may feel a tingling or numbness in the hands, and feel flushed or chilled.

As with GAD, a panic disorder usually does not occur by itself. Another serious condition, such as depression, substance abuse or alcoholism, often is present, as well. People with panic disorder often try to avoid places or situations that may trigger a panic attack. Some people restrict their activities so severely that they no longer want to leave home.

Panic disorder can be treated with medications or well-targeted psychotherapy.

Phobias

Phobias cause irrational and overwhelming fears leading a person to avoid common objects, events or situations that pose no actual danger. Phobias first appear in childhood or adolescence and often continue into adulthood, according to NIMH. They are twice as common in women as in men.

People with specific phobias may not seek treatment if they are able to avoid what it is they fear. Treatment may be necessary, however, if the phobia affects career or personal decisions. Phobias can be treated with psychotherapy.

The three types of phobias are:

1. Specific phobias can include fear of animals, insects, heights (acrophobia), confined spaces (claustrophobia), bridges, and other things.

2. Social phobias occur when people fear being embarrassed in everyday social situations or publicly scrutinized and humiliated. Social phobia can occur during a specific situation, such as a fear of speaking in front of people, or a fear of eating or drinking in front of others, NIMH says. In a severe case, a person feels anxious anytime other people are present.

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Anxiety costs the United States more than $42 billion every year-that's almost a third of the country's total mental health bill.