Find a psychiatrist

Anxiety disorders

About anxiety disorders

What is an anxiety disorder?

An anxiety disorder is when your anxiety gets out of control and starts to affect your life.

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health problem in Australia and New Zealand. Around 1 in 3 of us will have an anxiety disorder at some point in our lives.

Having an anxiety disorder can be distressing and make it difficult for you to live your life the way you want. However, there are effective treatments available and effective ways to prevent anxiety.

About anxiety

It's normal and healthy to feel anxious sometimes. Anxiety actually helps us. It makes us alert and helps us do things well.

For example, if we are a bit anxious before playing sport or doing an exam, it can make us perform better.

If we are in danger, feeling anxious can help us escape from the situation.

However, if we become too anxious, it can stop us thinking clearly.

When anxiety becomes so overwhelming that it affects your day-to-day life, it becomes a disorder.

Healthy anxiety Problem anxiety
Lasts only a short time Lasts for months or years
Happens in a stressful situation Not always linked to a stressful situation
Feel anxious occasionally Feel anxious often
Doesn't affect daily life Stops you doing things
Worried about things that could cause problems Worried about things that aren't likely to cause problems

Signs and symptoms of anxiety disorders

People with an anxiety disorder have very strong feelings of worry, unease or fear. They are more anxious than most people would be in the same situation.

They may go out of their way to avoid things, people, events or places that make them anxious.

They can also:

  • feel panicked
  • have trouble breathing
  • have a racing heart or chest pain
  • feel dizzy, shaky or sick
  • blush or sweat
  • find it difficult to think clearly and concentrate.

People with anxiety often also have symptoms of depression. If you notice some of these symptoms, and you're concerned you might have an anxiety disorder, you should seek help.

It's a terrible feeling. You feel really frightened but you don't know why. But it's comforting just to know that what you're feeling has a name – anxiety.

Brian, Whangarei

Types of anxiety disorders

There are several different anxiety disorders. They differ in terms of what you worry about, how you feel, and how you react.

Some people are worried about all sorts of everyday events – to do with work, finances, health and family for example. Others get anxious around other people. Some have repeated panic attacks, and some are fearful of a certain thing, situation or place – for example dogs or heights.

People often have more than one anxiety disorder.

More about the types of anxiety disorders

What's a panic attack?

A panic attack is where you suddenly feel extremely fearful. You might have a racing heart, find it hard to breathe, or feel sweaty, dizzy, shaky or like you might vomit.

Some people feel like they might collapse or die. Others feel like they've lost touch with reality.

The attacks come on very quickly, and can be over in just a few minutes. Sometimes they seem to happen for no reason – for example you might be just watching TV or relaxing on the couch.

Panic attacks aren't dangerous, but they are very scary.

Just because you've had one panic attack, it doesn't mean you have an anxiety disorder. But it's worth seeking help if:

  • you've had several panic attacks, or
  • you're so worried about having another one that it affects how you live your life.

Who gets anxiety disorders?

Anxiety disorders most often start when people are teenagers.

Anyone can get one, but they are more common among women and girls. They are also more common in people who were neglected/abused as children, or who are neglected/abused as adults.

You don't need to have suffered trauma to have anxiety.

For some people stress from different sources can build up over time – for example from stressful events at home, work, and in relationships – until the worry and distress develop into an anxiety disorder.

Getting help for anxiety disorders

Is feeling nervous, anxious or worried a problem for you? Does it stop you from doing things you need or want to do?

If you answered yes to both of these questions, it's worth seeking help. As a first step, see your GP (family doctor).

A GP can assess your symptoms and refer you to see a psychiatrist or psychologist if you need it.

Anxiety disorders don't usually go away by themselves. But effective treatments are available.

Find out where to get help

Once I got help, I was able to deal with stressful situations and I started sleeping better. I’m now able to do so many things that once upon a time I would have avoided.

Louise, Sydney

Diagnosis of anxiety disorders

A diagnosis is usually made by a GP, psychiatrist or psychologist.

Diagnosis might involve:

  • talking to you about how you feel, what's worrying you, and how long you've had these feelings
  • tests of your thinking (psychological tests)
  • a physical check-up.

Your doctor will want to check that there isn't another problem making you feel this way (e.g. a heart or thyroid problem), so they may also order other tests.

For most anxiety disorders, you need to have had the symptoms for a few months to get a diagnosis.

How are anxiety disorders treated?

The recommended treatment for anxiety disorders is psychological treatment (usually cognitive behavioural therapy).

You can get high-quality psychological treatments online (self-guided), or you can do them face-to-face with a qualified health-care professional (usually a psychiatrist or psychologist).

If you have very severe anxiety, your doctor might recommend medication as well.

You can discuss the options with your doctor.

More about treatment for anxiety disorders 

What can a psychiatrist do for anxiety disorders?

Psychiatrists can:

  • talk with you about your concerns
  • make a diagnosis of an anxiety disorder
  • work out a way to manage your anxiety
  • provide treatments – such as psychological treatments or medication
  • diagnose and treat any other mental health issues, including depression or alcohol and drug use
  • keep track of any medication side effects and your physical health
  • talk with people close to you about anxiety, if you wish
  • provide referrals to other health professionals, including psychologists.

Find a psychiatrist near you who has an interest in anxiety disorders

More about psychiatrists

Recovery from anxiety disorders

With the right support, information and treatment, most people with anxiety disorders improve. Many will recover completely and stay well.

Often people find it easier to manage their anxiety as they get older.

The right treatment can help you get to a place where your anxiety doesn't control your life any more, and you can do the things you want and need to do.

Support

Remember

  • An anxiety disorder is where your anxiety gets out of control and starts to affect your life.
  • Anxiety disorders are common.
  • Effective treatments for anxiety are available.
  • For most people, it's best to start with psychological treatment.
Last reviewed April 2017 © RANZCP | C1025V1

This is a general guide only, and does not replace individual medical advice. Please speak to your doctor for advice about your situation. The RANZCP is not liable for any consequences arising from relying on this information. Subject matter experts, people with lived experience of mental illness and carers all contributed to this fact sheet.