A quick guide to seven anxiety disorders
"What, me worry?"

Although MAD Magazine's freckle-faced, fictional Alfred E. Neuman first uttered his signature phrase in 1955, his words are especially poignant in today's anxious world. According to the Anxiety Disorders Association of America (ADAA), anxiety affects 40 million adults aged 18 and older (18 percent of the U.S. population).

"Americans ought to be very concerned about these numbers, since they make anxiety disorders one of the most common health problems in the United States. And, even though the number of those suffering is so high, so few of them will actually get good, empirically validated treatment to help them," said Patrick B. McGrath, Ph.D., via e-mail correspondence.

Dr. McGrath is the director of Alexian Brothers Behavioral Health Hospital Center for Anxiety and Obsessive Compulsive Disorders, Hoffman Estates, Ill.

Living in Intense Fear

Anxiety disorders cause people to live in intense fear. They consequently withdraw from everyday activities, even activities they enjoy. Yet, according to the AADA, approximately two-thirds of those with an anxiety disorder don't seek treatment, and as Dr. McGrath points out, those who do seek treatment may not go to the right specialist.

"People will seek out specialists for physical health problems, but will go to a general therapist for anxiety problems, and this is just not a good idea," Dr. McGrath said. "Be sure the person that you are seeing has specific training in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Exposure and Response Prevention. These are the two most effective therapies for anxiety disorders."

The Anxiety Disorder Quick Guide

The following descriptions of anxiety disorders are summaries of information found on the Web sites for the National Alliance on Mental Illness and The National Institute of Mental Health.

Panic disorder: Characterized by recurring panic attacks or persistent fears of having another attack. At least four of the following symptoms must be present during a panic attack to qualify as panic disorder: sweating; hot or cold flashes; choking or smothering sensations; racing heart; labored breathing; trembling; chest pains; faintness; numbness; nausea; disorientation; feelings of dying, losing control, or losing one’s mind.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD): Characterized by repeated thoughts; excessive neatness; repeatedly performing the same ritual; uncontrollable unwanted thoughts and behaviors; receiving no pleasure from the behaviors or rituals but getting brief relief from the anxiety caused by the thoughts; spending one or more hours a day on the thoughts and rituals.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): A debilitating response to witnessing, learning about or experiencing a traumatic event. The event causes fear, helplessness or horror and the response is characterized by flashbacks, bad dreams, emotional numbness, intense guilt or worry, angry outbursts, feeling "on edge," or avoiding thoughts and situations that remind the person of the trauma.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD): Characterized by excessive, uncontrollable and long-term worrying about everyday things, even if there is little or no need for the worry; being conscious of worrying more than you should; can't relax; difficulty concentrating; easily startled; trouble falling or staying asleep; feeling tired, lightheaded or out of breath; headaches; muscle tension and aches; difficulty swallowing; trembling or twitching; irritability; sweating; nausea; frequently going to the bathroom; hot flashes.

Social Phobia (aka Social Anxiety Disorder): An excessively self-conscious fear of being watched and judged by others and of appearing foolish, stupid or unacceptable, or of feeling embarrassed or humiliated. Characterized by avoiding some or all social situations, such as speaking or eating in public. The fear may be so severe that it interferes with work, school and other daily activities. Blushing, profuse sweating, trembling, nausea and difficulty talking may occur.

Agoraphobia: Characterized by extreme fear of being unable to escape from public places and a fear of having or actually having a panic attack in unfamiliar places. Agoraphobics often avoid situations such as being alone outside of the home; traveling in a car, bus, or airplane; or being in a crowded place.

Specific (simple) phobia: An irrational fear of something that poses little or no real threat, such as traffic jams; tight spaces; heights; escalators; tunnels; driving; water; flying; dogs; and blood. While adults often realize that their phobia is irrational, facing or just thinking about facing the feared object or situation can set off panic attacks or severe anxiety.

How to Get Help

If you or a loved one exhibits symptoms of an anxiety disorder, ask your physician for a therapist referral.

"Also, do not just go to get medications [from your doctor]," said Dr. McGrath. "Cognitive behavioral therapy and exposure and response prevention have just as good or even better outcomes than many medications."

For more information visit the National Alliance on Mental Health, the National Institute of Mental Health helpguide.org and Alexian Brothers Health System.