What is Anxiety?
What is anxiety? Ask anyone to define anxiety and you will quickly realize there is no shortage of examples that people can provide. However, you may be surprised to learn that although anxiety is a very common human experience, the descriptions that people provide are quite varied, and unique to each person. Anxiety is a human emotion that everyone experiences, but as we will soon see, this emotion is not experienced by everyone in the same way. The following case examples illustrate these various experiences of anxiety:
Sally is a 24-year-old sales assistant in a highly prestigious pharmaceutical firm. She constantly works under a great deal of pressure which she describes as “no big deal,” and she even believes she thrives off this stress. However, recently she has become more and more distressed over the fact that every time she walks into her local grocery store she immediately begins to sweat, her heart begins to race, and she starts to think she is “losing control.” Subsequently, she began to consider ordering her groceries on-line to specifically avoid this experience.
Bill is a 47-year-old hardware store owner. Bill is constantly “worrying” about (what seems to him) just about everything. Whether he is concerned about his business not doing well…or, what if that mole on his back is not just a beauty mark?…or, how on earth is he ever going to drive to Michigan all by himself to see his son (even with the brand new navigation system)?…Bill just cannot seem to “control” his worry.
Kim is a 36-year-old, part-time, freelance web-designer who normally would describe herself as calm and low-key; that is, as long as she does not have to go over a bridge, or travel in an airplane. For Kim, she hates places where she feels she cannot escape. She finds that she will often worry for days or even months in advance if she believes that she will have to face one of these situations. As a result, she has made a habit of avoiding these situations at all costs, or she will “barely get through them.”
Lastly, we have Pete, a 32-year-old law student who cannot quite explain why he is anxious; however, he wakes up every morning feeling a sense of “dread.” His anxiety usually lingers until about mid-day, at which point, he finally starts to get into the swing of his normal, daily routine.
So who is right? Are they all describing the same phenomenon? Well, in a nutshell, yes. The reason behind this paradox is that anxiety is best considered a complex, subjective experience; produced by multiple causes; and expressed by a diverse set of symptoms that includes physical, emotional, behavioral, and cognitive components. This is the reason that we can ask many different people about a very common experience, yet get totally different definitions of what it means to be anxious.
In addition, people differ in how often, and how intensely, they experience anxiety. For most individuals, anxiety is a normal and even adaptive occurrence, well within the bounds of normal, everyday human experience. Unfortunately for others, their anxiety may be experienced to such a heightened degree that it actually causes them significant distress. Sadly, this level of anxiety often interferes with people’s functioning in many important areas of their lives such as work, school, and relationships. When the normal human experience of anxiety reaches this level of distress, and results in impaired functioning, we begin to speak of an anxiety disorder.
Luckily, experts in the field have come a long way in understanding and treating anxiety. In the following article we will take a broad look at anxiety and the many facets that help to define it. We’ll begin with a more in-depth understanding of what anxiety is, and explain how it is actually quite beneficial in some situations. We will then go on to discuss what happens when anxiety becomes “pathological” and we will describe and explain the many different types of anxiety disorders. Next, we present the current research findings about what experts believe are the reasons behind the development, and maintenance of anxiety disorders. Finally, we will review how this knowledge has enabled us to develop highly effective treatments for the different types of anxiety disorders. This greater understanding of anxiety, and the development of effective treatments, enables us to confidently conclude there is hope and relief for the millions of individuals whose lives are negatively impacted by anxiety.