Everybody knows what it's like to feel anxious – the butterflies in your stomach before a first date, the tension you feel when someone important to you is angry with you, the way your heart pounds if you're in danger.
Anxiety rouses you to action. It gears you up to face a threatening situation. It makes you study harder for an exam, and keeps you on your toes when you're making a speech. In general, it helps you cope.
But if you have an anxiety disorder, this normally helpful emotion can do just the opposite it can keep you from coping and disrupt your daily life.
Anxiety disorders aren't just a case of "nerves." They are illnesses, often related to the biological makeup and life experiences of the individual, and they frequently run in families.
There are several types of anxiety disorder, each with its own distinct features. An anxiety disorder may make you feel anxious most of the time, without any apparent reason.
Or the anxious feelings may be so uncomfortable that to avoid them you may stop everyday activities. Or you may have occasional bouts of anxiety so intense they terrify and immobilise you.
Many people have a single anxiety disorder. But it isn't unusual for an anxiety disorder to be accompanied by another illness, such as depression, an eating disorder, alcoholism, drug abuse or another anxiety disorder.
In such cases, these problems will need to be treated as well.
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.