Anxiety is a natural response to stress. It’s a feeling of apprehension or fear of something to come. The first (or a very important) job interview, the first day at school, or having to make a speech may cause most people to feel nervous or stressed out.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), anxiety is "an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure."
There are normal feelings of anxiety, and then there’s what borders on or is an anxiety disorder. This article looks at the signs and symptoms of anxiety, the different types of anxiety, and the causes of anxiety.
Feelings of anxiety are not only normal, but necessary to survive when a person faces potentially harmful or worrying triggers. Since the dawn of time, approaching predators and other sources of impending danger set off alarms in the body, telling it to fight or flee. These alarms evidence themselves in the form of a rapid heartbeat, sweating, and increased sensitivity to surroundings.
The notion of impending risk causes a rush of adrenaline, secreted from the adrenal gland above the kidneys. This hormone reaches the brain swiftly, triggering feelings and reactions of anxiety in a process called the "fight-or-flight' response. This prepares people to flee from or confront any potential threats to their safety.
Today, fleeing from larger animals and imminent physical danger is not as much of a concern as it was to our predecessors, but anxiety is just as (if not more) common as it was back then. Today, most people’s anxieties relate to money, work, health, family life, and other crucial issues that demand a person's attention without always requiring the 'fight-or-flight' response.
The nervous feeling in a stressful situation or before an important life event is a natural echo of the biological 'fight-or-flight' reaction. It can still be crucial for survival – we’ll look both ways before crossing the street (at least most of us) to avoid being hit by a car. This is a case when we experience anxiety.
Feelings of persistent or extreme anxiety may indicate the presence of an anxiety disorder. These are very common too. Their symptoms normally last for more than six months and can begin to interfere with people’s lives.
Anxiety can be different depending on the individual experiencing it. Sensations can range from an irregular heartbeat or racing heart to butterflies in your stomach. You might feel out of control, like there is no connection between your body and mind.
Other ways some can experience anxiety include panic attacks, nightmares, and painful, uncontrollable thoughts or memories. One may have a general feeling of worry and fear or be afraid of a specific place or type of event.
Your anxiety symptoms might differ markedly from someone else’s. That’s why knowing all the ways, in which anxiety can manifest itself, is so important.
These two are what pessimism is to optimism: two sides of the same coin. Stress is the result of high demands on your body or brain. An event or activity that makes you nervous or worried can cause it. Anxiety is that same fear, worry, or unease. It can be a reaction to your stress, but people who have no obvious stressors in their lives can experience it too.
The mental and physical symptoms of anxiety and stress include:
Stress and anxiety are not necessarily bad. Both can give people that extra boost or incentive to face a challenge or accomplish the task before them. They only become a problem when they are so persistent that they start interfering with daily life. Extreme anxiety left untreated can contribute to heart disease and other chronic health issues.
Everybody who has anxiety will experience symptoms of more than one type of anxiety. Many people have depression as well.
The most common type of anxiety is generalized anxiety. This sort of anxiety can make you feel focused and alert, helping you get things done faster or perform at your best. Normally, we feel anxious and worried during or prior to events like making a presentation in front of our boss or a visit to the doctor. However, some people feel anxious most of the time, not just in specific anxiety-provoking situations. These feelings are persistent, intense, and interfere with their normal lives. The concerns relate to several aspects of everyday life, including family, work, money, and health.
Even small things like being pushed ahead of in line at the supermarket or household chores can become the focus of anxiety, leading to uncontrollable fear and a feeling of dread that something horrible will happen.
Also known as social phobia in its extreme form, this is the second most common type of anxiety. It's perfectly normal to feel anxious in social situations where we are the focus of other people’s attention, even if they are our friends or relatives. Attending an official function, giving a speech at a conference, and making a presentation to coworkers are all likely to cause anxiety and nervousness, both prior to and during the event.
In some cases, people experience excessive anxiety in social situations. They are (irrationally) afraid of being criticized, judged, embarrassed, scorned, or laughed at by and in front of others, even in the most trivial everyday situations. People with social phobia might feel uncomfortable eating in front of other people. They will avoid restaurants at any cost. They’ll decline invitations to dinner or, if they do go, won’t eat anything, which might seem strange to everyone else. This way, the phobia deepens.
Social phobia may occur prior to or during performance situations, such as being watched at work while performing some task or giving a speech, situations involving social interaction (such as making small talk or having lunch with friends), or certain more specific situations. People fear a specific situation or a number of such related to a specific fear, such as having to confront someone.
Fear or unease about certain situations, activities, objects, or animals is far from rare. Many people feel anxious at the mere prospect of seeing a snake or spider in their homes. Others get fearful about flying. Again, fear is a rational response to potentially threatening situations.
Notwithstanding this fact, some people react to certain activities, objects, or situations by imagining or irrationally exaggerating the potential risk. Their feelings of fear, panic, or horror are totally out of proportion to the actual risk. In some cases, the sight of a feared object on TV is enough to cause a reaction. Such excessive reactions may indicate specific anxiety disorder.
People with specific anxiety disorder are often well aware that their fears are irrational or exaggerated, but can’t control their anxious reaction. They perceive it as automatic. Sometimes they experience panic attacks, an overwhelming physical sensation that may include nausea, a pounding heart, faintness, choking, profuse sweating, dizziness, chest pain, or hot or cold flushes.
OCD is an anxiety disorder characterized by obsessive, recurrent, unwanted thoughts and/or compulsive, repetitive behavior such as counting, hand washing, checking, or cleaning. These behaviors are often performed with the hope of making obsessive thoughts go away or preventing them. These rituals provide only transient relief, but not performing them causes anxiety to increase considerably.
People who have experienced a scary, shocking, or dangerous event can develop PTSD. It is only normal to be fearful during and after a traumatic situation, because fear triggers the “fight-or-flight” response as a way for people to protect themselves from threats. After experiencing trauma, some people recover from the initial symptoms in a natural way. Others continue reliving the traumatic experience long after it has passed. These moments of reliving the trauma are accompanied by intense anxiety. This is often a symptom of PTSD. People who have this disorder are scared or stressed even when there are no objective threats around.
This extreme form of anxiety involves intense feelings of panic and anxiety combined with a range of physical symptoms. Often, people experiencing a panic attack think they are going to die or having a heart attack.
What causes anxiety in its mild or extreme forms? Researchers are still not sure of the exact cause, but it’s widely believed to be a combination of factors. These include brain chemistry and genetic and environmental aspects. For example, thousands of people witness terrorist attacks, but not all go on to develop an anxiety disorder. Clearly, anxiety is subjective to some extent.
Studies have shown that the areas of the brain implicated in control of the fear reaction may be affected. At present, research into anxiety is taking a deeper look at the parts of the brain associated with anxiety. It’s a very exciting and dynamic field.