What is anxiety and when is it a disorder?

What is anxiety?

Many parents are confused about the nature of anxiety and especially, when to really worry about it. Anxiety refers to feelings of worry, nervousness, or a sense of apprehension, typically about an upcoming event where the outcome is uncertain, or where a young person feels he or she might not be up to the task.

The Australian Psychological Society (APS) defines anxiety as ‘commonly experienced in high pressure situations, for example, prior to a making a speech or sitting an exam. Feelings of anxiety can also arise following a stressful event, like an accident where the person is left feeling shaken. Anxious feelings are usually accompanied by physical sensations such as a churning stomach, light headedness, and a racing heart.’

Signs and symptoms according to the APS

Although the experience of anxiety will vary from person to person, feeling stressed, worried, and having anxious thoughts are common symptoms. Other common symptoms of anxiety include:
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Restlessness
  • Avoidance behaviour
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Trembling or shaking


  • Feeling lightheaded or faint
  • Numbness or tingling sensations
  • Upset stomach or nausea
  • Sweating

When does anxiety become a disorder?

The APS says, ‘While anxiety is considered a natural reaction to a stressful situation, for some people anxious thoughts, feelings, or physical symptoms can become severe and upsetting, interfering with their ability to go about their daily lives. Where symptoms of anxiety occur frequently, occur over a period of time, and interfere with daily life, it is typically considered an anxiety disorder.’

Anxiety disorders are the most common type of mental disorders diagnosed in Australia. According to the APS there are a number of different types of anxiety disorder, including:

Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

GAD is characterised by persistent and excessive worry, often about daily situations like work, family or health. This worry is difficult to control and interferes with the person’s day-to-day life and relationships.

Panic Disorder

Panic Disorder is characterised by the experience of repeat panic attacks - sudden surges of overwhelming fear and anxiety and physical symptoms such as chest pain, heart palpitations, dizziness, and breathlessness.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Individuals with OCD have recurring, persistent, and distressing thoughts, images or impulses, known as obsessions (e.g. a fear of catching germs), or feel compelled to carry out certain repetitive behaviours, rituals, or mental acts, known as compulsions (e.g. hand-washing). These thoughts and acts can take over a person's life and whilst people with OCD usually know that their obsessions and compulsions are an over-reaction, they are unable to stop them.

Social Anxiety Disorder

A social anxiety disorder causes a person to have severe anxiety about being criticised or negatively evaluated by others. This leads to the person avoiding social events and other public situations for fear of doing something that leads to embarrassment or humiliation.

Specific phobia

People with a specific phobias experience extreme anxiety and fear of particular objects or situations. Common phobias include fear of flying, fear of spiders or other animals, and a fear of injections.


Agoraphobia involves intense anxiety following exposure to, or anticipation of, a variety of situations such as public transportation, open spaces, crowds, or being outside of the home alone.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

PTSD refers to a set of symptoms that can occur after exposure to a frightening and traumatic event. Symptoms include: a sense of reliving a traumatic event (through ‘flashbacks’ or nightmares); avoidance of places, people, or activities which remind the person of the event; feeling numb or detached from others; having negative thoughts about oneself and the world; feeling irritable, angry, or wound up; having trouble sleeping.
Categories: Anxiety