Almost everyone gets tense sometimes, such as before a job interview or a first date, when performing, in new situations. However, for many people, that nervousness is a more or less permanent state of existence, with no clear cause or source. The symptoms of this heightened state disrupt sleep, harm functioning, and take a lot of energy, and the reaction is completely disproportionate to whatever there is—if anything—to be nervous about. These are indications of an anxiety disorder, one of a handful of related health conditions collectively called anxiety.
One type is generalized anxiety disorder, in which nonspecific life events and general existence lead to a permanent and unjustified state of worry. "Unjustified" does not mean, however, that someone who actually has something to worry about can’t have an anxiety disorder as well. In fact, anxiety is often kicked off by an actual worry that simply develops into a habit of mind or mental pattern. Once developed, however, this pattern can be difficult to get out of, even in the absence of anything real to latch on to, or legitimate causes for concern are blown out of proportion. Generalized anxiety can sometimes cause physical symptoms, such as aching, sweating, or nausea.
Another common form of anxiety is panic disorder, or a tendency to suffer panic attacks. Panic attacks don’t always indicate panic disorder. They can be brought on by any form of acute stress, and when the stressful situation goes away, the attacks do as well. In panic disorder, these attacks are recurring and have no obvious cause and the attacks themselves—and their unpredictability—become sources of stress. People with panic disorder grow to fear and dread panic attacks, and worry about when the next one will strike, which can hasten it.
Anxiety does respond to treatment. Cognitive behavioral therapy, which concentrates on getting the patient to break out of mental patterns and teaching coping skills, is actually pretty close to the ideal approach for panic and anxiety disorders. In addition, antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications can help. Medications called benzodiazepines can help calm disproportionate worry in the moment, but they have high addiction potential and need to be used only sparingly.