What is anxiety?

Occasional worry or anxiety is a normal part of life. In fact, anxiety is a normal reaction to stress and can often be beneficial in some situations. But if you have intense, excessive and persistent worry and fear about everyday situations or in specific situations, you may have an anxiety disorder. Symptoms may start during childhood or adolescence and can continue for years if not treated.

If your feelings of anxiety interfere with your daily life, are difficult to control, appear to be out of proportion to the actual situation or last a long time, your condition can be treated by a professional psychologist

And remember: anxiety disorders are treatable. 

Are there different types of anxiety disorders?

There are many different types of anxiety disorders. These include social anxiety disorder (or social phobia), specific phobias (such as fear of flying, fear of medical procedures, fear of heights, etc.), panic disorder, agoraphobia, separation anxiety disorder, or selective mutism. Important anxiety is also found in other conditions such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, trichotillomania (hair-pulling), and excoriation (skin-picking). Anxiety is predominant in trauma or stressor-related disorders such as acute stress, adjustment disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder.

Some of the most common conditions that involve severe anxiety include the following:

  • Panic disorder is a series of episodes in which you have sudden feelings of intense anxiety and fear that peak quickly (a panic attack). You may feel short of breath, have chest pain, feel your heart is racing or have a sense of impending doom.

  • Specific phobias are characterized by a lot of anxiety when you face a specific object like a snake or spider or a particular situation like an airline trip or speaking in public. You want to avoid the object or situation, or at least get away from it as fast as possible. Phobias can provoke panic attacks.

  • Social anxiety (social phobia) involves high levels of fear and avoidance of social situations. In public you may feel self-consciousness, embarrassed or worried about what others are thinking about you.  

  • Agoraphobia is anxiety about being in certain places or situations. In such situations, you can feel helpless or trapped and you can start feeling like you are losing control or have a sense of panic.

  • Generalized anxiety disorder is a feeling of anxiety that cuts across different areas of your life. It includes excessive and persistent worry about activities or events, even everyday things. The worry is usually out of proportion, is hard to control and interferes with your ability to accomplish things. This disorder often occurs with other anxiety disorders or with depression. 

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder can appear after you have been exposed to a traumatic event, such as a crime, sexual assault, or an accident. Symptoms include disturbing recurring flashbacks, hyper-arousal and hyper-vigilance, or avoidance or numbing of the memories of the event.

  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder is characterized by intrusive thoughts that produce anxiety, uneasiness, apprehension, or worry (obsessions), and/or repetitive behaviors  (compulsions) that often aim at reducing the associated anxiety.

Some organizations provide information pamphlets on anxiety disorders, including for example the NIMH, REVIVRE, or the Canadian Psychological Association.

What are the common symptoms of anxiety?

  • Powerlessness
  • A sense of impending doom, danger or panic
  • Breathing rapidly (hyperventilation) or shortness of breath
  • Sweating
  • Trembling
  • Increased heart rate
  • Weakness or tiredness
  • Trouble concentrating or thinking about anything but your worry

If you are feeling these symptoms in your life, a professional such as a psychologist can help to assess your anxiety symptoms.

How are anxiety and anxiety disorders treated?

Medication can be prescribed to help. While it does not cure anxiety disorders, it can keep them under control while the person receives psychotherapy. The main medications prescribed for anxiety disorders are anti-anxiety drugs, but also antidepressants and beta-blockers.

Psychotherapy is the preferred treatment option when suffering from anxiety or an anxiety disorder. Psychotherapy comes in different formats. When looking for a psychologist for psychotherapy, make sure you look for one who uses an approach that has been shown to be effective by rigourous scientific research. This may include for example cognitive behavioral therapy or, in some cases (for example for phobias), exposure therapy. Exposure should be part of any treatment. Normally this is done in-vivo, that is by directly, but gradually, exposing you to the source of your anxiety. 

While this is very effective, it has a number of disadvantages when treating specific phobias; for example, neither you or the clinician have complete control over the stimulus (e.g. a snake or spider) that creates the anxiety, or it may sometimes be difficult or costly to do live exposure (e.g. for fear of flying). In order to address these problems, psychologists have begun using new technologies such as virtual reality (often referred to as cyberpsychology) to treat anxiety disorders.  When properly treated, most people overcome their condition and can lead normal, fulfilling lives.


A number of psychologists are doing innovative work using virtual reality (cyberpsychology) to treat simple phobias such as a fear of insects, of heights, or of public speaking. Clinics such as Medipsy in Montreal and In Virtuo in Gatineau offer these state-of-the-art treatments. Medipsy offers these clinical services through its Phobia Clinic situated in Westmount. 

Ruling Out Medical Causes of Anxiety

Anxiety symptoms may be the sign of an underlying medical problem. Anxiety can also be a side effect of certain medications. Your anxiety may be linked to a medical condition if you don't have any blood relatives with an anxiety disorder, you did not have anxiety as a child, you don't avoid things because of anxiety or if your anxiety comes on very suddenly and is not linked to any life event. Examples of diseases linked to anxiety include heart disease, diabetes, thyroid problems such as hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism, asthma, drug abuse or withdrawal, withdrawal from alcohol, anti-anxiety or other medications, irritable bowel syndrome, or premenstrual syndrome. If you are feeling anxious and have one of these conditions, see your physician to have your anxiety symptoms assessed. If your anxiety is not due to a medical problem, your physician can also refer you to a psychologist to treat your anxiety. For more information, visit www.medipsy.ca.

Please visit the Medipsy YouTube Channel for helpful videos on mental health, including this one on the treatment of phobias with virtual reality. 

The content of this webpage is for information purposes only and should not be used for diagnosis. Please talk to your mental health professional for additional information.