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Anxiety disorders

Most people have experienced anxiety, but not everybody has an anxiety disorder. Let’s look at the difference.

Teen boy looking anxious with silhouettes of bears, mice and frightening people behind him

Is anxiety a problem for me?

What normal anxiety is like:

  • Is temporary and may ‘come and go’
  • Your anxiety level mostly matches the seriousness of the situation
  • Most of the time is mild to moderate in severity
  • Most of the time it doesn’t interfere with your everyday life
  • Most of the time it doesn’t cause you distress
  • Is manageable most of the time, i.e. you can cope with minor support
  • Is a natural response to particular stressors, e.g. starting at a new school

Anxiety might be a problem for you if:

  • It lasts a long time
  • It feels very intense or overwhelming
  • It may not always seem to have a cause or a reason
  • You are struggling to cope
  • It causes you distress
  • It interferes with your everyday life, e.g. you avoid seeing friends because you feel anxious
  • Is disproportionate to the seriousness of the situation, i.e. the level of distress you feel is extreme compared to the actual danger/consequences of your worry

Different kinds of anxiety disorders

Anxiety disorders are really common, with about 10% of people experiencing an anxiety disorder in their lifetime. 

You can have more than one anxiety disorder at the same time.

"Anxiety disorders can only be diagnosed by a GP, psychologist, psychiatrist or other medical professional. Kids Helpline counsellors cannot diagnose you with an anxiety disorder."

– Amanda, Kids Helpline Counsellor

Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

This is where a person has excessive anxiety or worry most of the time, for at least six months. This anxiety or worry is about a number of events or activities, such as school, friends, sport, etc.

Other things you may experience with GAD:


  • Concentration difficulties
  • Restlessness
  • Tiredness
  • Difficulties concentrating
  • Feeling irritable
  • Muscle tension or tightness
  • Sleep issues, such as insomnia

Panic Disorder

Panic Disorder can involve having ‘panic attacks’. A panic attack is an intense fear that grows and peaks within a few minutes and has physical symptoms that might include:


Feeling very tired


Chest pain

Hot flushes

Fear you are dying



Feeling short of breath

Fear of losing control

Fear of 'going crazy'

Feeling detached from yourself

Feeling like you are choking

Nausea or stomach/digestion issues

Sense of ‘unreality’/things feel ‘surreal’

Heart palpitations or rapid heartbeat

"People have described panic attacks as feeling like an asthma attack or even a heart attack! Panic attacks can affect anyone. If they are rare or a one-off, they are not considered a panic disorder.

A panic disorder is where for one month or more, you might have one or more panic attacks, are frightened about having more future panic attacks, spend time thinking and worrying about the attacks and change your behaviours related to the attacks."

– Amanda, Kids Helpline Counsellor

Have you ever had a panic attack or an anxiety attack?

Learn more about how and why they happen!


Agoraphobia is thought of as a ‘fear of open spaces’, but this is just part of Agoraphobia. People with Agoraphobia have a fear of public places, especially those they see as being too public, too open, unsafe or where escape might be difficult or humiliating.

To be diagnosed with Agoraphobia, you must have two or more of the following fears/anxieties:

  • Using public transport
  • Being in open spaces
  • Being in enclosed spaces such as schools, shops, etc.
  • Being in a crowd or standing in a line
  • Being outside of your home by yourself


These fears are out of proportion to the actual danger and cause a lot of distress. They also last six months or more.

People with Agoraphobia may become isolated, be frightened of being alone, become dependent on others, avoid going out or even refuse to leave the house.

Some people with Agoraphobia have panic attacks or even a Panic Disorder as well.

"In high school I was diagnosed with anxiety, depression and agoraphobia which is a phobia of being in places where you can feel trapped or embarrassed." 

Social Phobia or Social Anxiety

What is Social Phobia?

This is a fear of one or more social situations where you feel you might be judged by others. This could include being in an unfamiliar situation, or being in a situation where others may be observing you.

Social phobia can be specific, too, e.g. worried about eating a meal in public. The fear is normally out of proportion and you find yourself avoiding those social situations. This can have a big impact on your social life and cause distress.

Why do people have social anxiety?

Social anxiety can be caused by lots of different things and these causes can be complex. These simple facts about the brain may help explain why social anxiety occurs.

Humans are social creatures – throughout our history, we have been dependent on other people to survive. Because of this, we are born with a fear of being abandoned

As we get older, we start to fear being rejected by others – rejection can lead to abandonment

This can manifest as a fear of being judged or a fear of shame/embarrassment, which may contribute to social anxiety


Most people are familiar with Phobias or know someone with a Phobia. A Phobia is an intense fear about a specific object or situation. For example, some people have a Phobia of spiders, others have a Phobia of flying.

Like many other anxiety disorders, Phobias are out of proportion to the actual danger their fear poses. This means that someone is intensely afraid of a mouse (for example), even though they know intellectually that a mouse wouldn’t hurt them and would likely run away from them. Also like other anxiety disorders, Phobias result in distress and avoiding the situation. They also usually last six months or more.

Interesting fact:

Some phobias might actually be inherited through your genes!

Obsessive Compulsive Disorders (OCD)

Obsessive-compulsive disorders are a type of anxiety disorder. OCD involves both obsessions and compulsions.

Obsessions: repeated unwanted thoughts that make you feel stuck and distressed. It can help to think of these as intense worry thoughts, or 'sticky thoughts' (they get stuck in your head). 

Compulsions: repeated behaviours that make the thoughts feel better temporarily.

Some examples of OCD can include:

  • Fears around cleanliness and contamination, e.g. fear of germs
  • Fear about harming others (on purpose or by accident), e.g. leaving the stove on and accidentally burning down the house
  • Needing organisation or perfectionism, e.g. arranging books by colour and size
  • Intrusive/unwanted sexual thoughts that cause distress
  • Supersitions, e.g. lucky numbers


The obsessions/compulsions are time-consuming (take up more than one hour per day), disrupt your everyday life and cause distress.

How can I cope with an anxiety disorder?

Anxiety is very treatable. Different treatments work differently for different people, so it’s important to find the treatment (or combinations of treatments) that work best for you.

Here are some self-help strategies that may help:

People with an anxiety disorder may find they also need and benefit from professional support.

If you’re confused about the way you react to situations, talking with someone can really help

You’re not alone – support is always available.

If you want to learn more about anxiety and how to deal with it, give us a call, start a WebChat or send us an email today.

If you need more information for other digital services and resources, check out Head to Health.

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This content was last reviewed 20/07/2023

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