what is anxiety

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines anxiety as “an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure.”

It is important to know the difference between normal feelings of anxiety and an anxiety disorder that requires medical attention.


When faced with potentially harmful or worrying triggers, feelings of anxiety are not only normal but necessary for survival.

Ever since the earliest days of humanity, the approach of predators and incoming danger has set off alarms in the body and allowed an individual to take evasive action. These alarms become noticeable in the form of a raised heartbeat, sweating, and increased sensitivity to surroundings.

A rush of adrenaline in response to danger causes these reactions. This adrenaline boost is known as the ‘fight-or-flight’ response. It prepares humans to physically confront or flee any threats to safety.

For most modern individuals, running from larger animals and imminent danger is a less pressing concern. Anxieties now revolve around work, money, family life, health, and other crucial issues that demand a person’s attention without necessarily requiring the ‘fight-or-flight’ reaction.

That nervous feeling before an important life event or during a difficult situation is a natural echo of the original ‘fight-or-flight’ reaction. It can still be essential to survival – anxiety about being hit by a car when crossing the street, for example, means that a person will instinctively look both ways to avoid danger.

Anxiety disorder

The duration or severity of an anxious feeling can sometimes be out of proportion to the original trigger, or stressor. Physical symptoms, such as increased blood pressure and nausea, may also become evident. These responses move beyond anxiety into an anxiety disorder.

Anxiety disorders occur when a reaction is out of proportion to what might normally be expected in a situation. The APA describes a person with anxiety disorder as “having recurring intrusive thoughts or concerns.”

Types of Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety disorders can be classified into six main types. These include:

Generalized anxiety disorder(GAD):This is a chronic disorder involving excessive, long-lasting anxiety and worries about nonspecific life events, objects, and situations. It is the most common anxiety disorder. People with GAD are not always able to identify the cause of their anxiety.

Panic Disorder:Brief or sudden attacks of intense terror and apprehension characterize panic disorder. These attacks can lead to shaking, confusion, dizziness, nausea, and breathing difficulties. Panic attacks tend to occur and escalate rapidly and peak after 10 minutes. However, they may last for hours.

Panic disorders usually occur after frightening experiences or prolonged stress but can also occur without a trigger. An individual experiencing a panic attack may misinterpret it as a life-threatening illness. Panic attacks can also lead to drastic changes in behavior to avoid future attacks.

Phobia:This is an irrational fear and avoidance of an object or situation. Phobias differ from other anxiety disorders, as they relate to a specific cause. The fear may be acknowledged as irrational or unnecessary, but the person is still unable to control the anxiety. Triggers for a phobia may be as varied as situations, animals, or everyday objects.

Social anxiety disorder:This is a fear of being negatively judged by others in social situations or a fear of public embarrassment. This includes a range of feelings, such as stage fright, a fear of intimacy, and a fear of humiliation. This disorder can cause people to avoid public situations and human contact to the point that everyday living is rendered extremely difficult.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD):This is an anxiety disorder characterized by thoughts or actions that are repetitive, distressing, and intrusive. OCD suffers usually know that their compulsions are unreasonable or irrational, but they serve to alleviate their anxiety. People with OCD may obsessively clean personal items or hands or constantly check locks, stoves, or light switches.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD):This is anxiety that results from previous trauma such as military combat, sexual assault, a hostage situation, or a serious accident. PTSD often leads to flashbacks, and the person may make behavioral changes to avoid triggers.

Separation anxiety disorder:This is characterized by high levels of anxiety when separated from a person or place that provides feelings of security or safety. Separation sometimes results in panic symptoms. It is considered a disorder when the response is excessive or inappropriate after separation.

What Causes Anxiety

Anxiety disorders have a complicated network of causes, including:

  • environmental factors, such as stress from a personal relationship, job, school, finances, traumatic event, or even a shortage of oxygen in high-altitude areas
  • genetics
  • medical factors, such as the side effects of medicine, symptoms of a condition, or stress from a serious underlying medical condition
  • brain chemistry
  • use of or withdrawal from an illicit substance

Excessive anxiety is most commonly triggered by the stress of day-to-day living and any combination of the above. It is usually a response to outside forces, but it is possible that anxious feelings can emerge from a person telling himself or herself the worst will happen.

Anxiety can result from a combination of one or more of the above. For example, a person may respond to stress at work by drinking more alcohol or taking illicit substances, increasing anxiety.


A mental health professional can diagnose anxiety and identify possible causes.

The physician will take a careful medical and personal history, perform a physical examination, and order laboratory tests if needed. These tests may provide useful information about a medical condition that may be causing anxiety symptoms.

To receive a diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), a person must:

  • experience excessive worry and be anxious about several different events or activities on more days than not for at least six months
  • find it difficult to control the worrying
  • have at least three anxiety symptoms on more days than not in the last six months, including restlessness, fatigue, irritability, muscle tension, difficulty sleeping, and difficulty concentrating

Symptoms must interfere with daily living, causing absence from work or school.

If there is no specific cause for the anxiety and worry, a physician will diagnose GAD. In cases related to a clearer cause, a different diagnosis may be reached.

Common symptoms of anxiety

There are several different anxiety disorders, each with a distinct set of symptoms. However, common symptoms can include:

  • sweating
  • dizziness
  • trembling
  • increased or irregular heartbeat
  • back pain
  • restlessness and fatigue
  • muscle tension
  • being easily startled
  • recurring and ongoing feelings of worry, with or without known stressors
  • avoidance of certain situations that may cause worry, often affecting quality of life

It is crucial that passing feelings of anxiety are seen as temporary to avoid increasing the amount of worry and the risk of an anxiety disorder. However, it is also important not to ignore symptoms of anxiety disorders so that timely treatment can be received.

People with an anxiety disorder often present symptoms similar to clinical depression and vice-versa. It is rare for a patient to exhibit symptoms of only one of these conditions.

Treatment for Anxiety

Treating a person with anxiety depends on the causes of the anxiety and individual preferences. Often, treatments will consist of a combination of psychotherapy, behavioral therapy, and medication.

Alcohol dependence, depression, or other conditions can sometimes have such a strong effect on the individual that treating the anxiety disorder must wait until any underlying conditions are brought under control.


In some cases, anxiety can be treated at home without a doctor's supervision. However, this may be limited to shorter periods of anxiety and more obvious causes.

There are several exercises and actions that are recommended to cope with this type of anxiety:

  • Stress management: Learning to manage stress can help limit potential triggers. Keep an eye on pressures and deadlines, compile lists to make daunting tasks more manageable, and commit to taking time off from study or work.
  • Relaxation techniques: Simple activities can be used to relax mental and physical signs of anxiety. These include meditation, deep breathing exercises, long baths, resting in the dark, and yoga
  • Exercises to replace negative thoughts with positive ones: Make a list of the negative thoughts you experience, and write down a list of positive, believable thoughts to replace them. Picturing yourself successfully facing and conquering a specific fear can also be beneficial if the anxiety symptoms are related to a specific cause.
  • Support network: Talk with a person who is supportive, such as a family member or friend.
  • Exercise: Physical exertion can improve self-image and release chemicals in the brain that trigger positive feelings.


A standard way of treating anxiety is psychological counseling. This can include cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), psychotherapy, or a combination of therapies.

CBT aims to recognize and change the thinking patterns associated with the anxiety and troublesome feelings, limit distorted thinking, and change the way people react to objects of situations that trigger anxiety.

For example, a person taking CBT for panic disorder involve learning that panic attacks are not really heart attacks. CBT is an exposure-based therapy that encourages people to confront their fears and helps reduce sensitivity to their usual triggers of anxiety.

Psychotherapy is another type of counseling. It consists of talking with a trained mental health professional, psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker, or counselor.

Sessions may be used to explore the causes of anxiety and possible ways to cope with symptoms.


Although anxiety disorders cannot be prevented, and anxious feelings will always be present in daily life, there are ways to reduce the risk of a full-blown anxiety disorder.

Taking the following steps will help keep anxious emotions in check:

  • Reduce caffeine, tea, cola, and chocolate consumption.
  • Check with a doctor or pharmacist before using over-the-counter (OTC) or herbal remedies to see if they contain chemicals that may make anxiety worse.
  • Maintain a healthy diet.
  • Keep a regular sleep pattern.
  • Avoid alcohol, cannabis, and other recreational drugs.
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