Anxiety is something we all experience, but what is it exactly? In this post I will define what anxiety is, how to recognise when you are feeling it, and why we have it in the first place. This is first step to turning anxiety from something confusing and overwhelming into something that can be understood and managed.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is our response to danger or threat. Our thoughts, feelings, body, and behaviour all change in ways that are designed to prepare us to deal with the danger by fighting, avoiding, or freezing. Threats can be physical (e.g. being assaulted), social (e.g. being rejected), or anything else related to your ongoing survival (e.g. loss of job). It doesn’t matter if the danger is real or not. Instead, what matters is whether our brain thinks there is danger. In this case, although the danger may not be real, the physical and emotional reaction is real.
Anxiety vs fear
Anxiety and fear are related but different feelings. Both are part of how our brain responds to danger and threat. Anxiety is the emotion we get when we are anticipating a danger that is more distant into the future, for example worrying that we might come across a hungry tiger if we were to go outside today. Anxiety tends to rise and fall more slowly and peak lower than fear. Anxiety can persist throughout the day to the extent you are worrying about something. On the other hand, fear is the emotion we get when there is an immediate danger, for example a hungry tiger running full speed toward you. Fear tends to rise and fall over a relatively short time frame and having a bigger intensity spike than anxiety.
Why do we have anxiety?
In a nutshell, to keep us safe and not get killed! Anxiety has become part of our DNA through natural selection and evolution, as those who had it were more likely to survive and pass on their genes. Anxiety alerts us to threat and gives our body and mind the boost needed to deal with it. This is a good thing most of the time. Imagine for a moment that you didn’t have anxiety or fear at all. There would be no part of your brain telling you to not wander onto a busy road or to spend time studying for an important exam.
Anxiety and the body
Any of these changes can happen in the body, depending on how anxious you are feeling.
- Muscle tension.
- Heart rate increase.
- Breathing changes.
- Stomach upset.
- Hot or cold flushes.
- Fidgeting / agitation.
Anxiety and the mind
When anxious or fearful, we tend to focus attention on the source of danger, scan or be on the look-out for potential threat and think about threatening outcomes. As anxiety increases our thoughts may start to race or even freeze up and go blank. When anxiety is extremely high, we can sometimes feel outside of our body or as if things are not quite real.
Anxiety and behaviour
Anxiety and fear typically come with an urge to deal with the threat through some version of “fight, flight, or freeze”. With the example of our hungry tiger, “fight” might mean grabbing a spear and trying to kill the tiger, “flight” might mean running away, and “freeze” might mean playing dead. Applied to a modern day threat such as failing an important exam, “fight” might mean studying all through the night, “flight” might mean procrastinating / avoiding study, and “freeze” might mean going blank in panic during the exam.
Is it normal to feel anxious?
Yes, it is normal to experience anxiety from time to time, especially when we are doing something new, challenging, or important. It is normal to feel more anxious when going through stressful times, change, or transitions. It is certainly normal to feel more anxious during a global pandemic!
Anxiety vs anxiety disorder
Anxiety becomes an anxiety disorder when the anxiety is frequent, not going away, distressing, and intense to a degree that it is significantly impacting your life in a negative way.
Types anxiety disorders
Anxiety disorders come in different types. They all have anxiety as their main characteristic but differ in the focus of anxiety concern. It is common to have more than one anxiety disorder at a time. Anxiety often comes hand in hand with depression and / or substance use. The main anxiety disorders are:
- Generalised anxiety disorder
- Social anxiety disorder
- Specific phobia
- Panic disorder
- Post-traumatic stress disorder*
- Obsessive compulsive disorder*
* These two are technically not classified as anxiety disorders in the DSM-5, but they still have anxiety as their main characteristic.
Treatment for anxiety disorders
There are a range of effective treatments for anxiety disorders that broadly fall into two categories, psychological and medical treatment. Beyond Blue has an excellent resource called “What works for anxiety – An evidence based review” that gives a comprehensive summary of the treatments for anxiety and the level of evidence supporting each one.
Can I get rid of anxiety?
Yes and no. Anxiety is unpleasant, so it is natural to want to get rid of it and not feel it. However, due to how our brain is hard-wired, we can’t directly control or stop an anxiety / fear response (if you could you probably would have already!). When and where we get anxious is largely out of our direct control, but we can learn to control how we respond when we feel anxious. We can learn effective ways to respond to anxiety so that it passes quicker, is less distressing, and has less impact on what we do. In fact, one guaranteed way to make yourself more anxious is to try to suppress anxious thoughts and feelings. The more we respond to anxiety in helpful ways, rather than ways that add fuel to the fire, the less anxiety we tend to experience overall. We can’t ever get rid of anxiety altogether since it is part of our DNA. The good news is that we don’t need to get rid of anxiety, but instead to reduce it to a level where it is not interfering with our lives or causing a lot of distress.