Anxiety describes a physical, cognitive, and behavioral reaction that includes feelings of seriousness, nervousness, and even fear. (Learn More)
There have been several attempts to try to identify different levels or degrees of anxiety. (Learn More) Because anxiety is a subjective experience, these proposed models are not practical. (Learn More)
Anxiety is a feature of many other mental health disorders and may need to be addressed with medication in these conditions. (Learn More)
To make it even more difficult, many physical conditions can produce dysfunctional anxiety. In these cases, a different approach is required. (Learn More)
If you suffer from anxiety and wish to receive treatment, you should be evaluated by a physician and/or mental health care professional. (Learn More)
An anxiety disorder can affect your entire realm of experience: your thoughts (cognition), your physical reactions (physical symptoms and behavior), and your emotions (physical and mental feelings).
You may need medication to treat your anxiety if you are diagnosed with an anxiety disorder or other psychological disorder.
Anxiety is a term that is applied to feelings of nervousness or jitteriness that occur as a result of some specific situation or that are due to a particular mental or physical condition.
Everyone experiences anxiety at one point or another, but the everyday nervousness that we all experience as a result of living in the world does not require formal treatment. Clinically significant anxiety that needs formal treatment will produce serious issues with everyday functioning.
Degree or Levels of Anxiety
There is no objective way to measure a person’s level of anxiety. Anxiety is a subjective feeling. Most often, the level or intensity of a person’s anxiety is measured by their own self-report and an observation of their behavior.
Some sources have attempted to differentiate between different levels of anxiety. Most often, these differentiations include:
- Some designation of mild anxiety. This represents common issues with jitteriness or nervousness that occur as a result of everyday living.
- Moderate anxiety. This occurs when you experience significant changes in heart rate, alterations in breathing rate, nausea, or sweating. When you experience moderate anxiety, you tend to concentrate more on the anxiety-provoking issue than on other issues.
- Severe anxiety. This is a manifestation of overt fear that results in significant physical changes, including trembling, chest pain, headache, and problems concentrating.
- Panic attacks. These are considered to be the highest levels of anxiety. They result in significant problems in functioning.
It Is Impossible to Define Levels of Anxiety
The problem with attempting to objectively distinguish between levels of anxiety is that anxiety is a subjective experience. There is no way to objectively measure the actual level of anxiety a person is experiencing.
Some people, under the conditions of what would normally be considered mild anxiety, may act as if they are having panic attacks. Other people experiencing what many people would label as severe anxiety may only act as if they are mildly anxious.
Instead, it is the effect that anxiety has on your normal everyday functioning that determines if you have a psychological disorder related to your experience of anxiety.
What Is an Anxiety Disorder?
Instead of trying to develop a scale that differentiates between different levels of anxiety, it is more productive to understand how anxiety manifests itself in different types of mental health disorders and what differentiates an anxiety disorder from other forms of mental health disorders.
According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), an anxiety disorder is a psychological disorder where the primary mechanism is excessive fear and/or anxiety. Fear is described as an emotional response that occurs as the result of a real (or professed) threat, whereas anxiety occurs due to anticipating some future threat occurring.
There are different anxiety disorders listed by APA.
- Agoraphobia is when the person experiences extreme fear or anxiety in situations where they believe they cannot escape, such as open spaces or crowded situations.
- Generalized anxiety disorder is a persistent and excessive feeling of anxiety or worry about events or activities that occur in everyday life. This is a chronic disorder that must occur for at least two years.
- Panic disorder involves significant worry and anxiety associated with anticipating panic attacks — sudden intense feelings of anxiety or terror that often seem to come out of nowhere.
- Social anxiety disorder occurs when the person experiences significant anxiety associated with social situations.
- Phobias involve intense anxiety or fear around some object or event. The fear is well out of proportion to the actual threat the situation presents.
Other anxiety disorders, such as separation anxiety disorder (diagnosed in children), substance-induced anxiety disorder (as a result of substance abuse), and others are also listed in APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – Fifth Edition (DSM-5).
How Do I Know if I Have an Anxiety Disorder?
If you experience anxiety that is so disruptive it affects your ability to work or perform at school, damages your personal relationships, or cause you significant distress, discuss the issue with a licensed mental health clinician.
The only way to determine if you have a formal anxiety disorder is to be evaluated and diagnosed by a professional. You cannot diagnose yourself.
If you have an anxiety disorder, you may need medication to treat it.
Anxiety Is Part of Most Other Mental Disorders
Anxiety disorders are mental health disorders where the primary feature of the disorder is dysfunctional anxiety. However, significant issues with anxiety also occur in nearly every other form of mental health disorder listed in the DSM-5.
If you are diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder that is not an anxiety disorder, but you experience significant anxiety that is a manifestation of a different psychiatric disorder, you may still need medication to treat your anxiety.
Many Physical Conditions Also Produce Significant Anxiety
Many different types of physical conditions can also produce severe anxiety symptoms. Simply using anxiety medications to treat symptoms caused by a medical issue will not significantly reduce your anxiety level. Instead, the medical issue needs to be treated directly.
The following physical conditions can produce anxiety:
- Cardiovascular disease (heart disease)
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or other respiratory problems like asthma
- Certain types of tumors
- Withdrawal from alcohol or drugs
Anxiety is also a common side effect of many medications.
How Do I Know if My Anxiety Needs Treatment?
The best way to determine if your anxiety requires treatment, particularly with medication, is to be evaluated by a physician and/or a mental health clinician.
The following are some signs that should prompt you to schedule a consult:
- Your anxiety is upsetting to you, and you find it difficult to control your nervousness.
- Anxiety is interfering with your relationships, your work, or other important areas of your life.
- You have significant issues with depression and anxiety.
- You have issues with substance abuse and anxiety.
- You have suicidal thoughts or have attempted to hurt yourself. In this case, seek emergency treatment immediately.
- Your anxiety has been persistent for a week or longer.
Only a licensed physician, like a psychiatrist, neurologist, or other physician type, can prescribe anti-anxiety medication for you. You should never take anti-anxiety medications without getting a prescription from a physician and being under the care of a physician while you are using them.
Anxiety. (2019). American Psychological Association.
(2002). Hildegard Peplau: Psychiatric Nurse of the Century. Springer Publishing Company.
(2013). The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – Fifth Edition. American Psychiatric Association.
Anxiety Disorders. (May 2018). Mayo Clinic.
Guidelines for the Pharmacological Treatment of Anxiety Disorders, Obsessive–Compulsive Disorder and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in Primary Care. (June 2012). International Journal of Psychiatry in Clinical Practice.