What Is Anxiety? Definition, Description and Main Symptoms

what is anxiety

Everyone experiences conflicting feelings from time to time. Even when everything seems to be fine: at work, at home, in your personal life. Still, sometimes something gnaws from the inside, does not give us rest, and makes us pay attention to the problems of the inner world. In psychological science, this “inexplicable feeling” has already been well studied and is called “anxiety”. So, what is anxiety?

Anxiety Definition

Anxiety is a negatively colored emotion that expresses a sense of uncertainty, the expectation of negative events, and hard-to-guess forebodings. Unlike the causes of fear, the causes of anxiety are usually not recognized, but this feeling prevents the person from engaging in potentially harmful behavior or encourages acting to increase the likelihood of a successful outcome of events. Anxiety is associated with the subconscious mobilization of the body’s mental forces to overcome a potentially dangerous situation.

Anxiety is:

  1. Apprehensive uneasiness or nervousness, usually over an impending or anticipated ill: a state of being anxious.
  2. An abnormal and overwhelming sense of apprehension and fear often marked by physical signs (such as tension, sweating, and increased pulse rate), by doubt concerning the reality and the nature of the threat, and by self-doubt about one’s capacity to cope with it.
  3. Mentally distressing concern or interest.
  4. Distress or uneasiness of mind caused by the fear of danger or misfortune.
  5. A feeling of worry, nervousness or unease about something with an uncertain outcome.
  6. A nervous disorder marked by excessive uneasiness and apprehension, typically with compulsive behavior or panic attacks.

What Is Anxiety Like?

Anxiety is blurred, prolonged, and vague fear of future events. It arises in situations where there is no (and may not even be) a real danger to a person, but they are waiting for it and don’t know how to cope with it. So, what is anxiety? According to some researchers, anxiety is a combination of several emotions – fear, sadness, shame, and guilt.

For anxiety (and for many other forms of fear), in most cases, the following line of thought is typical: a person finds examples of unfavorable or dangerous events in their past or the surrounding life. And then transfers this experience to their future.

what is anxiety. Young woman covering face with hands, looking through fingers

For example, a person, seeing a dog in the distance, remembers that once they were bitten by a dog. Thus they have the fear of a repetition of such a situation. At the same time, a person may feel fear and anxiety about the events that never happened to them but they happened to other people. What’s more, the events may even be unreal.

Sometimes such a mechanism of formation leads to the emergence of absurd fears which, nevertheless, have a very strong negative impact on the human psyche. Many people cannot sleep because of fear after watching a horror film. At the same time, they understand that the film was just a figment of the imagination of the screenwriter and director, and the monsters were the result of computer graphics or the skillful play of actors. Still, some people experience anxiety.

A sufficiently pronounced anxiety includes two components:

  • awareness of physiological sensations (rapid heartbeat, sweating, nausea, etc.);
  • awareness of the very fact of anxiety.

What Is Anxiety? Description

Anxiety is sometimes exacerbated by a sense of shame (“Others will see that I’m afraid”). An important aspect of “anxious” thinking is its selectivity. A person is inclined to choose certain topics from the surrounding life and ignore the rest to prove that they are right, considering the situation as frightening. Or, on the contrary, thinks that their anxiety is not justified. Anxiety can cause confusion and perception disorder not only of time and space but also of people and the meanings of events.

Anxiety is a sequence of cognitive, emotional, and behavioral reactions that are actualized as a result of the impact of various stress factors on a person. Stress factors can be both external stimuli (people, situations) and internal factors (actual state, past life experience, determining interpretations of events and anticipation of scenarios for their development, etc.). Anxiety performs several important functions: warns a person about a possible danger and encourages the search and concretization of this danger on the basis of an active study of the surrounding reality.

what is anxiety. overwhelming thoughts

It should be noted that although at the level of a subjective experience anxiety is rather a negative state, its impact on the behavior and activity of a person is ambiguous. What’s more, anxiety sometimes becomes a factor in mobilizing potential opportunities.

In this regard, in psychology, there are two types of anxiety: mobilizing and relaxing. Mobilizing anxiety gives an additional impetus to activity. The relaxing one reduces its effectiveness until it stops completely. The type of anxiety experienced by a person largely depends on childhood.

Anxiety and Stress

Everyone knows what anxiety is. This is a vague, unpleasant emotional state when a person expects an unfavorable development of events, suffers from the presence of bad forebodings, fear, tension. While fear presupposes the presence of the object that causes it, such as a person, an event or a situation, anxiety is usually pointless.

Most often, a person’s anxiety is associated with the expectation of the social consequences of their success or failure. Anxiety is closely related to stress. On the one hand, anxiety is a sign of stress. On the other hand, the initial level of anxiety determines individual sensitivity to stress.

Just like stress, the state of anxiety cannot be considered uniquely bad or good.

In many situations, anxiety is completely natural, adequate and even useful. In certain situations, any person feels anxiety, especially if one needs to do something unusual or prepare for it. For example, anxiety can be caused by a speech in front of an audience or a difficult exam. Such anxiety is rather useful because it encourages you to prepare better for the speech, learn the material before the exam, and so on.

Chronic Anxiety

But in some people, anxiety becomes chronic, permanent and begins to appear not only in stressful situations but also for no apparent reason. Then anxiety not only does not help a person but, on the contrary, starts to interfere with their daily life.

If the feeling of anxiety is strong and frequent, one can assume the presence of one of the types of anxiety disorders: generalized anxiety disorder when a person feels inexplicable tension and anxiety; phobias (a person possesses a disastrous irrational fear of a particular object or situation); and obsessive-compulsive disorder (a person is troubled by obsessive thoughts and actions).

what is anxiety. stressed-woman

Excessive anxiety, tension, and fear experienced by people with anxiety disorders can be accompanied by physical and psychological ailments.

The main symptoms of an anxiety disorder:

  • Rapid heartbeat;
  • sweating;
  • tremor or trembling;
  • the difficulty of respiration, feeling of a lump in the throat or difficulty swallowing;
  • pain and discomfort in the chest;
  • nausea or abdominal distress (heartburn);
  • feeling dizzy, unstable or fainting;
  • a feeling that objects are unreal (derealization);
  • the fear of losing control, of madness, of dying.
  • fever or chills;
  • numbness or tingling sensations;
  • muscle tension or pain;
  • inability to relax;
  • nervousness or mental stress;
  • enhanced response to surprises or fright;
  • difficulty in concentrating attention or “emptiness in the head” due to anxiety;
  • constant irritability;
  • difficulty falling asleep due to anxiety.

Is It Necessary to Treat a Pathological Anxiety?

Modern medicine believes that it is up to a person to decide. If one decided to tolerate this unpleasant condition, they are considered practically healthy and don’t need psychotherapeutic help. If a person wants to improve the quality of their life and get rid of pathological anxiety, they should seek help from a professional who will help to treat anxiety disorder.

Can Anxiety Disorders Be Treated?

Yes, they can. Anxiety disorders can be treated by cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy, medications, or both.

Doctors believe that behavioral therapy provides the most effective treatment of anxiety disorder. Its methods involve creating frightening situations that cause obsessions (effects) and taking measures to prevent unwanted reactions.

what is anxiety. a man visiting a doctor

Studies have shown that three-quarters of people who have attended about fifteen treatment sessions of behavioral therapy demonstrate a significant reduction in symptoms of anxiety disorders. Compared with medication, behavioral therapy usually provides more serious and longer-lasting improvements.

The most effective for anxiety disorders is a combination of behavioral and cognitive therapy. Using these methods in combination helps to change not only unwanted behavior but also those thoughts and beliefs that can cause the symptoms of anxiety disorders.

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