What Is Severe Anxiety?

Anxiety disorders can cause mild to severe symptoms, but treatment is available

While most people experience some anxiety, as with a new experience or challenge, severe anxiety can be overwhelming. Severe anxiety is when the body's natural responses to anticipated stress exceed healthy levels and interrupt your ability to function and carry out typical day-to-day tasks.

The immediate physical symptoms can include a racing heart, changes in breathing, or a headache. Long-term or recurrent severe anxiety can be a sign of an anxiety disorder and can lead to health problems, such as heart disease.

This article explains how the severity and type of anxiety reactions can vary. It will help you to know more about how to deal with severe anxiety, and when a diagnosis and professional care may be needed.

If you or a loved one is struggling with severe anxiety, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area. For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

What Is Severe Anxiety?

The mind and body naturally perceive and react to potential threats automatically, with the goal of staying safe. This is often helpful and means your body is working the way it should.

Anxiety is a way of preparing for future stress or possible negative experiences.

When these feelings include constant worry, or a chronic sense of threat or impending dread, it could signal an anxiety disorder.

Severe anxiety symptoms can become a persistent problem. They can interrupt daily functioning, impact quality of life, and become too difficult to manage. Severe anxiety can even bring about suicidal thoughts.

Types of Severe Anxiety

Severe anxiety is not a formal diagnosis, but a level of how serious the symptoms and impact of the anxiety disorder are. Anxiety disorders are categorized into different types, based on the specific way symptoms are experienced.

Categories include:

Each type of anxiety disorder can range from mild to severe, and require different interventions based on the individual and the circumstance.

Anxiety disorders also come about at different points in a person's life, with most developing during childhood and adolescence, and they tend to fluctuate in severity throughout the course of the illness.

For example, separation anxiety disorder and specific phobias tend to arise during childhood, with an average age of diagnosis being 7 years old, while generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is more common later in life.

Mild, Moderate, and Severe Anxiety Symptoms

Anxiety in a broad sense is very common. In fact, it's the most common type of mental health disorder, with 33% of people being impacted by an anxiety disorder in their lifetime.

Symptoms of anxiety can impact a person's mind, behaviors, and physical well-being. Though anxiety symptoms can be different for each person, worry and avoidance are common.

The actual symptoms of severe anxiety might not be different from mild or moderate levels of anxiety, but severe anxiety symptoms are less likely to be self-manageable.


In small amounts, as with mild levels of anxiety, worry can actually help you prepare, like when studying for a test or paying your bills before late fees kick in.

However, worrying too much about things that cannot be controlled can have a negative effect on overall well-being and is a sign that anxiety may be more severe.


Severe anxiety often causes avoidance, a type of behavior people use to escape uncomfortable feelings. It can mean physically avoiding something, such as crowds, or by declining invitations to events.

In some cases, avoidance can lead to life choices like not preparing for a presentation due to feelings of nervousness. This type of behavior may temporarily circumvent anxiety, but avoidance is not an effective way to overcome it.

When most severe, anxiety-induced avoidance can cause a person to withdraw from stressful interactions, such as socializing, making decisions, or working. It can even lead to isolation. It's common for social isolation itself to lead to anxiety and depression, adding to the problem.

Physical Symptoms

Severe anxiety can lead to physical symptoms. Muscle tension is a natural tightening of muscles when the body experiences stress. A tight jaw and tense abdominal muscles are examples of ways that muscles react to stress and anxiety.

Paying attention to specific ways your body feels when you are calm vs. anxious can help you to recognize when you are experiencing anxiety symptoms.

Common ways anxiety is experienced physically are through:

  • Sweating
  • Upset stomach
  • Shallow breathing
  • Shakiness
  • Headache
  • Jaw pain
  • Eye strain
  • Racing heartbeat

People with severe levels of anxiety might experience physical responses more frequently, more intensely, or with a more significant impact.

Long-term impacts from severe levels of anxiety symptoms can result in medical conditions like heart disease, an ulcer, or a lowered immune system.

When Is Anxiety An Emergency?

An anxiety attack can lead to chest pain, shortness of breath, lightheadedness, and other symptoms.

  • The symptoms of an anxiety attack are often intolerable and require urgent treatment.
  • Some of these symptoms are common to other serious health conditions and should be evaluated.
  • If your anxiety is so severe that it prompts thoughts of suicide or self-harm, seek professional help immediately.

Causes of Severe Anxiety

Severe anxiety can occur for a number of reasons, each of which is unique to individual experiences. Stressful events during childhood, trauma, and difficult experiences throughout life, such as death and divorce, can lead to anxiety.

Anxiety may be related to a broader situation. For example, the COVID-19 pandemic or concerns over climate change can lead to anxiety.

Though it is difficult to determine who will be most at risk for developing an anxiety disorder, those with a close family member who has an anxiety disorder are three to five times more likely to develop an anxiety disorder themselves.

Severe Anxiety Diagnosis

Anxiety is one of the most underdiagnosed mental health disorders. Though it is very common, many people do not seek treatment for anxiety. One study found only 20% of people with an anxiety disorder seek help from healthcare providers.

If you're trying to manage severe anxiety alone, it may be time to seek professional care. Your healthcare provider or insurance company can help you to find a mental health professional.

Anxiety disorders can only be diagnosed by licensed mental health professionals. A provider will typically ask a series of questions to determine the type and severity of anxiety you're experiencing.

Anxiety disorders are highly co-occurring, meaning they are often present alongside depression, substance use disorders, and other conditions.

Measuring Anxiety Levels

The fifth edition of the "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders" (DSM-5) includes diagnostic criteria for anxiety disorders.

Mental health professionals often use measurement scales to determine anxiety levels. These tools can determine how distressing and disruptive your anxiety symptoms are, which allows for a more personalized and effective treatment plan.

Examples of common anxiety-measurement scales are:

  • The Generalized Anxiety Disorder Assessment (GAD-7)
  • The State-Trait Anxiety Inventory (STAI)
  • The Beck Anxiety Inventory (BAI)

These assessments ask questions related to how often anxiety symptoms occur and how disruptive they are. Based on the responses, a determination of mild, moderate, or severe anxiety will be provided.

Severe Anxiety Treatment

Noticing and effectively addressing the feelings that come with anxiety is an important step toward treatment. Even severe levels of anxiety can be treated by working with a mental health professional. Sometimes, medication is recommended along with psychotherapy.

Though the specific treatment plan will depend on the individual needs of the person seeking help, some common treatment approaches include:

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy is the most highly recommended intervention for overcoming anxiety, due to its high level of effectiveness. CBT involves identifying negative thoughts and behaviors that contribute to anxiety with the goal of changing these in more adaptive ways.


Along with a formal intervention like CBT, psycho-education is often used to provide information about the nature of anxiety. A therapist will explain how it impacts health, functioning, and experiences, and ways it can be recognized and reduced.

Exposure Therapy

Sometimes, the best way to overcome anxiety, as with specific phobias, is to face the fear directly. With exposure therapy, a person is gradually introduced to the anxiety-causing stressor over time.

Seeing a snake across the room, then being near it, then touching it is an example of exposure therapy. This type of therapy is done along with large amounts of supportive and relaxation techniques.


Mindfulness is an evidence-based practice that can be done for severe anxiety. It can help people to overcome racing thoughts or constant worry, with a focus on the present. Research has shown promising results in people with severe anxiety and depression, especially those who haven't responded well to other interventions.

Support Groups

When working through severe anxiety, it's important to have ongoing support. Along with trusted friends, family members, and colleagues, support groups can be an impactful way to connect with others who are experiencing similar symptoms.

A mental health therapist will often provide recommendations for support groups based on the type of anxiety disorder a person is dealing with.

Coping and Prevention

It's important to find ways to cope with anxiety and to incorporate lifestyle practices that can help prevent your symptoms.

There are many ways to keep anxiety in check, including:

  • Getting regular exercise
  • Getting enough sleep every night
  • Relaxation exercises, including deep breathing, mindfulness exercises, and meditation
  • Eating healthy, nutritious, and regular meals
  • Limiting caffeine intake
  • Finding helpful social supports

A good routine can help to support the work that happens in therapy.


Anxiety is a common mental health concern. Severe anxiety can impact a person's overall well-being, ability to function, and enjoyment of life.

Anxiety disorders can range from mild to moderate to severe, It's important to work with a mental health professional to get an accurate diagnosis and start to work on a treatment plan. With the right support, even severe anxiety can be reduced and managed.

A Word From Verywell

Managing anxiety isn't easy. If you are struggling with severe anxiety, just getting through the day can be exhausting. Know that you are not alone and that there are treatment options that can help.

If you're already receiving treatment but feel your anxiety is getting worse, tell your provider right away. It may be necessary to change your current medication or type of therapy.

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Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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