Women's Health Matters

Text Size
Jump to body content


Everyone worries or feels anxious now and again. Anxiety is a normal and expected feeling to have in particular circumstances. In fact, a certain level of anxiety can actually be helpful. A little bit of anxiety can allow you to focus better, which can be helpful if, for example, you are studying for an important exam. Or, some anxiety might improve your performance when running a race. The right amount of anxiety can give you a little bit of an edge.

If your anxiety is pervasive (occurs in many different situations) or persistent (continues even when there does not appear to be any actual threat) and significantly interferes with your daily functioning, you may have an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders are the most common type of mental illness. They are also more common in women. There are many different types of anxiety disorders and anxiety difficulties:

Panic disorder

This is a disorder characterized by recurrent, unexpected panic attacks.

Panic attack

A panic attack is when an individual experiences a sudden onset of intense apprehension, fearfulness or terror. It is often associated with body-related symptoms such as shortness of breath, chest pains, or a choking or smothering sensation. The individual often fears losing control or “going crazy.”
Symptoms of a panic attack include:

  • palpitations, pounding heart or accelerated heart rate
  • sweating
  • trembling or shaking
  • sensations of shortness of breath or smothering
  • feeling of choking
  • chest pain or discomfort
  • nausea or abdominal distress
  • feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded or faint
  • feeling unreal or detached from yourself
  • fear of losing control or going crazy
  • fear of dying
  • feeling numb or tingling sensations
  • chills or hot flushes


This refers to anxiety about going to places from which escape would be difficult or embarrassing, or where it might be difficult to receive help in the event that you have a panic attack. Common situations include being outside of the home alone; being in a crowd or standing in a line; being on a bridge; or travelling in a bus, train or automobile. Individuals with agoraphobia may or may not suffer from panic attacks.

Specific phobia

A specific phobia is characterized by significant anxiety around a specific object or situation. People with a specific phobia tend to go to great lengths to avoid this particular object or situation. For example, someone with a fear of elevators may rent an apartment based on not having to use an elevator, walk many flights up to their work, and simply not go certain places that are accessible only by elevator. The fear is characterized as unreasonable for the situation, and can be triggered by even thinking about or anticipating an encounter with the object or situation. Examples of specific phobia include: animals or insects, heights, water, needles, bridges or tunnels.

Social phobia

Social phobia is characterized by significant anxiety around certain social situations. Individuals often fear others will judge them as “stupid” or “crazy.” Some avoid certain activities in public, such as eating or drinking, for fear of being embarrassed if others see their hands shake. Individuals often have significant anticipatory anxiety. Often, individuals have difficulty being assertive and struggle with feelings of inferiority and low self-esteem.

Anticipatory anxiety

This refers to worry in advance regarding an upcoming event.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder

This is an anxiety disorder characterized by recurrent obsessions and/or compulsions. The obsessions are persistent thoughts or ideas that are experienced as intrusive and cause significant distress. Compulsions are repetitive behaviours (for example, hand-washing, checking things over and over again, making sure that things are in a precise order or are perfectly symmetrical, hoarding things that aren’t needed or used) or mental acts (for example, counting, repeating words, praying without feeling able to stop) that are an attempt to reduce one’s distress. The person often feels compelled or driven to perform these compulsions, and receives very little pleasure for them. Rather, it is actually distressing to engage in these compulsions. These compulsions often develop as a way of preventing a dreaded event or situation (for example, if I check that the appliances have been turned off three times there will not be a fire in the house).

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)

GAD is characterized by excessive anxiety and worry about a number of different events. The worry feels difficult to control and is often accompanied by restlessness, being easily fatigued, difficulty concentrating, irritability, muscle tension and disturbed sleeping. The intensity and duration of the worry is out of proportion to the actual event. Individuals often worry about everyday life events, finances, their and others’ health, and minor matters (for example, household chores, car repairs or being late for an appointment); these worries, however, are pervasive and excessive.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and acute stress disorder (ASD)

These are both anxiety disorders that develop following a traumatic event. The individual with PTSD or ASD often re-experiences the traumatic event (for example, through flashbacks or nightmares), feels as though his/her nervous system is hyperaroused (for example, chronic restlessness, difficulty sleeping or feeling on edge), and often engages in avoidance of any reminders of the trauma. Other symptoms include dissociation.


This is a coping strategy to manage overwhelming feelings of distress. When overwhelmed or in an unbearable situation, dissociation is a strategy that enables aspects of the event to be disconnected or not remembered, and makes the situation momentarily tolerable. Examples of dissociation include being in a daze, feeling numb, feeling detached, having no connection to one’s feelings or sensations, limited awareness of surroundings, feeling as though you are outside of your body, or amnesia for parts or all of the event.


The most common co-occurring mental health difficulty for individuals with anxiety is depression. In fact, there are many overlapping symptoms between generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and major depression, including:

  • agitation
  • low mood
  • disrupted sleep
  • fatigue
  • problems with concentration
  • restlessness
  • irritability
  • worry
  • anxiety
  • tension


Jump to top page
  • A publication of:
  • Women's College Hospital