Maybe you know a woman who checks her stove three times before leaving the house. Or, perhaps you have a friend who refuses to fly on a plane, or who seems to worry excessively about her children’s health.

These women may brush off their quirks, but they are likely suffering – just like the millions of other women - with an anxiety disorder. While depression gets more media attention, anxiety disorders are actually the most common type of mental health problem in the United States. While the disorders affect about 13 percent of the general population in any given year, women are much more likely than men to be affected by certain anxiety problems, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

All too often, people suffer in silence, embarrassed. It’s a good bet that the suffering person won’t talk about having a problem at the sisterhood fund-raiser or by the office water cooler.

All too often, people suffer in silence“The average person would be surprised at who has an anxiety disorder,” says Dr. Jeffrey Moore, a psychiatrist at Akron General Medical Center in Ohio. “There are many people you run into on a daily basis who have a diagnosable or diagnosed-and-treated anxiety disorder. While you don’t think they are especially calm people,” Moore continues, “You wouldn’t think they would have to seek therapy or be on medication.”

Anxiety disorders can present themselves in different ways – there are 13 different subtypes, outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the guidebook for mental health experts. If a person has a panic disorder, she may suffer from sudden periods of intense fear, along with a variety of symptoms that can include heart pounding, breathlessness, nausea and trembling. A person might have a phobia, an excessive fear of an object or an event, such as flying or snakes. Other anxiety disorders include: obsessive-compulsive disorder, in which a person has recurring ideas or images and also may feel compelled to repeat certain actions to try to cope, or to prevent something terrible from happening.

Everyone feels anxiety at some point – it is the degree of the feelings, and duration of symptoms that can determine if someone needs help. For instance, a person with generalized anxiety disorder will worry about typical life issues – such as family finances or personal health, but to an excessive degree, for longer than six months. Often, this kind of worrying is accompanied by muscle tension or other problems.

Other anxiety disorders include post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is related to being exposed to a life-threatening event such as a murder or bombing, and anxiety problems related to other medical conditions.

Women are more likely to develop some anxiety disorders. Twice as many women as men develop panic disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder and PTSD, according to Mental Health: A Report of the U.S. Surgeon General..

Women are more likely than men to develop PTSDAnd there are gender differences in the way women can experience the conditions, according to the Anxiety Disorders Association of America. For instance, a woman who has panic disorder may have more severe symptoms, and can be more likely to relapse after treatment. Also, women are more likely than men to develop PTSD after being personally assaulted, and as a means of coping, they are more likely to feel “numb” and avoid stressful situations.

People once believed that mental illnesses were due to personal weaknesses or even evil forces – but scientific research has shown those beliefs are not true.

Anxiety disorders, for instance, probably result from a complicated mix of both environmental and genetic influences, says Moore.

When a person develops an anxiety disorder, she often has had a parent or parents who also had an anxiety disorder. Moore says. The parent likely has passed on the genetic predisposition for the condition, but probably also acts in certain ways because she or he also has the problem. In other words, the child gets a double whammy – genes and environment – that sets the stage for developing an anxiety disorder, which often presents itself in early adulthood.

A suffering person may be able to hide her problem for years. For instance, one Ohio woman, who asked to remain anonymous for family reasons, worked at an executive level sales job. She says it once was nothing for her to jump on a jet to travel, and to lead business meetings.

“I loved my job,” she explains.

But even though she was a whiz in the workplace, she was aware she felt anxious. She pushed those feelings down for many years.

She had the double whammy of genes and environment: As a child, her mother, a nurse, had constantly overworried about germs and health. When she became an adult and raised her own family, she continued being vigilant about germs. She never touched a public bathroom door, and used hand sanitizer constantly years before the product gained mass appeal. Even though the Ohio woman was extremely busy combining being a wife and mother with an executive position, her home was always immaculate.

She couldn’t leave on business trips without continually worrying about disastersThen about 15 years ago, the woman says, her anxious feelings worsened. Suddenly, she couldn’t leave on business trips without continually worrying about disasters that might occur at home. During business meetings, out of the blue, she would start to panic. “I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t see – yet probably no one knew,” she explains.

Finally, she had to leave her job. With treatment, which includes talk therapy and medication – her symptoms are easing. But her anxiety problems have hurt both her career and family finances.

How hard a person is hit by an anxiety disorder varies, experts say. One person will be able to remain highly productive, while another may not be able to work or manage other regular duties at full speed. The prognosis will vary, depending on the severity of the illness, and if the patient has other problems, such as depression, along with the anxiety condition.

Treatment for anxiety disorders generally consists of medications, plus psychotherapy that deals with present-day behavior, rather than a focus on the past, experts say.

In many instances, a therapist will strongly encourage her anxious patient, aided by medication, to force herself to confront the anxiety-producing situation, be it having dirty hands or flying on a plane.

If an anxiety sufferer is highly motivated to recover, she has higher odds of success. As Dr. Moore explains: “It seems very simple, but if you work very hard on a problem, the problem tends to get better.”