Symptoms of anxiety disorders

Generalised Anxiety Disorder

Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) is characterised by excessive anxiety and worry.
The person finds it difficult to control the worry and may feel tired, restless, irritable, have difficulties with sleep and/or concentration. As in the case of other anxiety disorders, GAD can be very debilitating, making it difficult to carry out ordinary daily activities.

Panic Disorder

Panic attack symptoms include:

- Chest pains or a pounding heart

- Light-headedness or dizziness

- Nausea or stomach problems

- Flushes or chills

- Shortness of breath or a feeling of smothering or choking

- Tingling or numbness

- Shaking or trembling

- Feelings of unreality

- Terror

- A feeling of being out of control or going crazy

- Fear of dying

- Sweating


This involves an intense and irrational fear of an object or situation, typically leading to avoidance although the feared object or situation may be endured with dread.

Obsessive-compulsive Disorder

OCD is characterised by recurrent obsessions or compulsions that are time consuming, distressing to the person or impairs the person’s functioning. Usually the person is aware that the obsessions or compulsions are excessive or unreasonable.

On occasion, however, the person may be convinced that their obsessions/compulsions are reasonable.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Persons with PTSD display three types of symptoms:

- Intrusive re-experiencing symptoms are when a person has memories, flashbacks or nightmares of the event(s).

- Avoidant or numbing symptoms are when a person withdraws from people or activities that are reminders of the traumatic event.

- Hyper arousal symptoms are when a person is easily startled, irritable, on edge or has trouble falling asleep.

When children have PTSD, symptoms are expressed in different ways. For example, children may re-experience the traumatic event through repetitive play (e.g. a child who witnessed a robbery may re-enact the robbery again and again using her toys). 

Scientists have suggested that PTSD tends to be more intense and lasts longer when the traumatic event involves human violence. They have also found good evidence that the likelihood of developing PTSD increases with the severity, length and proximity of exposure to the traumatic event.

When to call a health professional

It is important to seek professional help if you are experiencing symptoms of an anxiety disorder. If left untreated, the disorder can become disabling. 

Read more: 

Preventing anxiety disorders  

Types of 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.

Read more on: anxiety health depression


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