Updated 04 February 2016

Types of Anxiety Disorders

Your anxiety cannot be treated unless you know what type of anxiety you suffer from. Listed below are some of the more common types.

Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

GAD is much more than normal day-to-day anxiety. It's chronic, exaggerated worry and tension.

Having this disorder means always anticipating disaster and often worrying excessively about health, money, family or work.

Sometimes, though, the source of the worry is hard to pinpoint. Simply the thought of getting through the day may provoke anxiety.

People with GAD can't seem to shake their concerns, even though they usually realise their anxiety is more intense than the situation warrants.

People with GAD also seem unable to relax. They often have trouble falling or staying asleep.

 Their worries are accompanied by physical symptoms, especially trembling, twitching, muscle tension, headaches, irritability, sweating, hot flushes, and feeling light-headed or breathless.

They may feel nauseated or have to visit the bathroom frequently. Or they might feel as though they have a lump in the throat.

Panic Disorder

People with panic disorder have feelings of terror that strike suddenly and repeatedly without warning.

They can't predict when an attack will occur, and many develop intense anxiety between episodes, worrying when and where the next will strike.

Between attacks there is a persistent worry that another attack could come any minute.

 When a panic attack strikes, typically the heart pounds and they feel sweaty, weak, faint or dizzy. Their hands may tingle or feel numb, and they might feel flushed or chilled. They may have chest pain or smothering sensations, a sense of unreality, or fear of impending doom or loss of control. They may believe they're having a heart attack or stroke, losing their mind, or are on the verge of death. Attacks can occur at any time, even during non-dream sleep.

Panic disorder is often accompanied by other conditions such as depression or alcoholism, and may lead to phobias of places or situations where panic attacks have occurred. For example, if a panic attack strikes while you're riding in a lift, you may develop a fear of lifts and perhaps start avoiding them.


Phobias aren't just extreme fear; they are irrational fear. Adults with phobias realise their fears are irrational, but often facing, or even thinking about facing, the feared object or situation brings on a panic attack or severe anxiety.

Specific phobia

A specific phobia is the intense, irrational fear of specific objects or situations that cause terror. Specific phobias can be classified into subtypes, namely Animal Type, Natural Environment Type (e.g. storms, heights or water), Blood-Injection-Injury Type (e.g. seeing blood or an injury), Situational Type (e.g. public transportation or enclosed places) or Other Type (if fear is cued by other stimuli).

Social Anxiety Disorder (Social Phobia)

Social anxiety disorder (social phobia) is an intense fear of becoming humiliated in social situations; in other words, of embarrassing yourself in front of others. It often runs in families and may be accompanied by depression or alcoholism.

Obsessive-compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is characterised by anxious thoughts or rituals you feel you can't control.

The disturbing, intrusive thoughts or images such as those described above are called obsessions, and the rituals performed to try to prevent or dispel them are called compulsions. There is no pleasure in carrying out the rituals you feel compelled to perform, only temporary relief from the discomfort caused by the obsession.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a debilitating condition that follows a terrifying event, such as a violent attack, hijacking, accident or a natural disaster. The person may experience the traumatic event directly, may witness an event that involves other people or may learn about a traumatic event that happened to a family member or close friend.

Read more: 

Preventing anxiety disorders 

Treating anxiety disorders 

Diagnosing anxiety disorders 

Reviewed by Dr Stefanie van Vuuren,  MB ChB (Stell), M Med (Psig) (Stell), FC (Psych)SA, Psychiatrist in private practice, Cape Town.  February 2015. 

Previously reviewed by Dr Soraya Seedat, psychiatrist and co-director, MRC Unit on Anxiety and Stress Disorders.