The basic definition of anxiety is a sense of fear out of proportion to actual threat of danger.
The definition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is varied, because anxiety can be a temporary state, a disorder, or a specific subset of symptoms. I'd like to talk about some of those variations and the subsets of symptoms - in other words, the many faces of anxiety.
Eee-GAD! There is a diagnosis called Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD for short). In order for this to be your diagnosis, you would need to have a lot of worries in several different situations more often than not in the past 6 months; worries are difficult to control; and they manifest in some physical symptoms such as body tension, restlessness, fatigue, insomnia, or difficulty concentrating. (NOTE: The DSM adds criteria to each diagnosis to say that another more specific diagnosis wouldn't explain it better, symptoms aren't due to a health problem or substance use, and they "cause significant distress or impairment.") GAD and other anxiety disorders are the most common mental health disorders in the U.S. but only about a third of people with anxiety get treatment (source). Treatment usually consists of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), or some form of it. Other forms or off-shoots of CBT are REBT, DBT, and ACT. All of these have shown to be effective in treating GAD.
Social Anxiety Disorder. This is one of the specific types of anxiety. It may overlap with GAD and also lasts for at least 6 months, but the symptoms do not equal GAD, because they only occur in social situations and require: a fear of social embarrassment or criticism, recognition that the fear is somewhat irrational, and intense distress and/or avoidance of situations that might include embarrassment, judgment, or criticism. In addition, people may have panic attacks: physical feelings such as racing heartbeat, sweating, dizziness, numbness, and the feeling that one is going to faint or even die.
I see many adolescents with social anxiety. They often avoid going to school. Some parents or teachers think of their behavior as avoidance of school work or bullying, or they may see it as plain shyness. But to have the disorder means that the symptoms and avoidance are out of proportion with the threat - in other words, they may never or rarely have been bullied, and shy people might be shy, but not have social anxiety. I always tell people with this diagnosis, "Your anxiety is lying to you." Anxiety tells you that the best thing to do is to avoid the thing that causes your anxiety. But the treatment for it is actually the opposite: you must go toward the thing that makes you anxious. Avoidance only temporarily causes relief but strengthens the anxiety response in the long run. Treatment is usually (again) CBT, especially challenging faulty thinking by asking yourself:
Agoraphobia. Social anxiety or other anxiety disorders can overlap with agoraphobia, which is now its own anxiety disorder. People - myself included - used to think of agoraphobia as the fear of going outside, but this isn't true. Agoraphobia means that you fear and avoid of places and situations that might cause feelings of panic, entrapment, helplessness, or embarrassment. For some, it is a fear of standing in line at the grocery store, For others, it is going to a class in school where you know the teacher might not let you leave. Agoraphobia often goes hand-in-hand with panic. This makes sense - if you felt unsafe in a situation and like you could not easily escape it, wouldn't you panic?
Treatment for agoraphobia is often in the - you guessed it - realm of CBT or CBT-like therapies. Again, your anxiety is lying to you: the situation you are in is probably not unsafe, and you probably could leave, if you needed to. Therapy might include looking at irrational thoughts and challenging them (as in the example above). For some, such as adolescents in school, it might require a modification of the rules for that person (in Oregon, this is known as a 504 Plan) - within reason, e.g. giving the student permission to take a break from class if needed. Ultimately, in therapy you may be asked to consider working on coping strategies for panic so that you can face those situations that cause the anxiety.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Another specific type of anxiety, OCD involves intrusive thoughts and (often) behaviors in response to certain thoughts or situations. A person with OCD will usually try to neutralize the thought with a behavior - which works briefly. The subtypes of OCD are worries about:
Anxiety has many faces. You can even be diagnosed with "Anxiety, unspecified," by a doctor or therapist if you have significant distress and worry, but it doesn't meet the criteria of any of the above (or they don't know enough yet about your anxiety).
There are medications that can help, in addition to the therapies and strategies above, but many of them are prescribed less and less often these days because they are opiates and addictive. Doctors and psychiatric nurse practitioners will often use SSRIs or SNRIs, which are the very same medicines used to treat depression, and are not opiate-based or addictive. They take time to build up in your system and must be taken daily, rather than as-needed. Some people don't like this.
Some people don't like therapy, either, but if you are in distress and don't want to live that way, doing something is always better than doing nothing. So, I suggest you start by asking someone you trust and who knows you well. Treatment is personal and your situation will be different from others. Get help right away if you need it (see 3 links here). Or, if you don't need immediate intervention or are just looking for some information, I hope you have found something helpful here.
I am Lisa and I believe we create our reality. I hope to help empower people to create more mindfully, be kind to oneself and others including animals and the environment, and just generally feel better.