Quick Guide

ANXIETY UK guide to Anxiety Disorders

For more detailed information on any of the anxiety conditions summarised below, see our range of factsheets


Simple or Specific Phobias
A phobia is an irrational fear of an object/situation etc. that would not normally trouble most people. As the name suggests, simple/specific phobias are phobias that are about specific objects, situations etc. They can be quite distinct in nature and easily identified. For example, fear of spiders, fear of thunderstorms, fear of heights. Any phobia may produce a state of panic when the sufferer is confronted with the phobic object/situation. A wide variety of physical symptoms are experienced such as nausea, increased heartbeat and jelly legs. For this reason, many people with simple or specific phobias enter into a pattern of avoidance which can vary enormously in severity from someone who would not want to touch a spider, to someone who cannot even look at a picture of a spider in magazines, and therefore has to vet everything they come into contact with. The latter demonstrates just how debilitating even a simple phobia can be.

Agoraphobia is a very complex phobia usually manifesting itself as a collection of inter-linked phobias. For example many agoraphobics also fear being left alone (monophobia), dislike being in any situation where they feel trapped (exhibiting claustrophobia type tendencies) and fear travelling away from their ‘safe’ place, usually the home. Some agoraphobics find they can travel more easily if they have a trusted friend or family member accompanying them, however this can quickly lead to dependency on their carer. The severity of agoraphobia varies enormously between sufferers from those who are housebound, even room-bound, to those who can travel specific distances within a defined boundary.

Social Phobia
Social or public situations of any kind may induce this disorder which is often expressed as a fear of being the centre of attention, or of others noticing the sufferer’s anxious behaviour. Social phobia can also be classed as ‘specific social phobia’ i.e. when there is social phobia only in specific social situations, e.g. public speaking. The fear of behaving in an embarrassing or humiliating way can lead to a complete withdrawal from social contact, as well as avoidance of specific social situations such as public toilets, eating out etc. The physical manifestations of this phobia include blushing, shaking and sweating etc.

Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
This can be defined as a disorder in which the sufferer feels in a constant state of high anxiety. The anxiety experienced is not as a result of any specific trigger, but those with this condition feel that they are on edge all the time for no specific reason. GAD is often accompanied by depression. GAD is sometimes called ‘free-floating’ anxiety condition.

Panic Disorder
The common thread between most anxiety disorders is the panic attack. However, when panic attacks are experienced out of the blue without an apparent trigger, this is classified as panic disorder. Sufferers of panic disorder often feel fine one minute, and yet the next may feel totally out of control and in the grips of a panic attack. Panic attacks produce very real physical symptoms from a rapid increase in heartbeat to a churning stomach sensation. These physical symptoms are naturally unpleasant and the accompanying psychological thoughts of terror can make a panic attack a very scary experience. For this reason, sufferers start to dread the next attack, and quickly enter into a cycle of living ‘in fear of fear’.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
This disorder can be looked at in two parts; obsessions – these are repetitive, obtrusive, unwanted thoughts that are experienced and result in unreasonable fears, and compulsions – acts or rituals carried out in response to fears generated by obsessions. The classic OCD condition is that of compulsive hand washing in response to an irrational fear of germs/contamination. Sufferers of this disorder feel less anxious once they have carried out a compulsion. It is possible to experience obsessive thoughts only and not have the desire to carry out a compulsion. Examples of compulsions are excessive cleaning, counting, checking, measuring, and repeating tasks or actions. Trichotillomania (compulsive hair-pulling) may also be classified under the general umbrella of OCD. Examples of obsessions are worrying excessively about death, germs, illness – usually AIDS, cancer, etc. (this can also be classified as an ‘Illness phobia’,) having undesirable sexual thoughts, fearing causing harm to others.

Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) / Dysmorphophobia
This disorder has also been nicknamed ‘Imagined Ugliness Syndrome’ for sufferers of the condition have an irrational preoccupation with a perceived body defect, either present in themselves or in others; the latter being dysmorphophobia by proxy. BDD sufferers cannot accept that their fears of their perceived body defect are out of all proportion, and frequently seek plastic surgery/other measures in an attempt to rectify the perceived problem.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
PTSD is an anxiety disorder which may develop following exposure to any one of a variety of traumatic events that involve actual or threatened death, or serious injury. The event may be witnessed rather than directly experienced, and even learning about it may be sufficient if the persons involved are family members or close friends. Sufferers may experience flashbacks, panic attacks and heightened awareness.