5 min read

What is Anxiety


Anxiety is a difficult term to describe. Individuals often report experiencing or feeling anxiety, which can mean many different things. All people usually experience the feeling of anxiety. A crisis or other stressful situation may trigger anxiety.


What Is Anxiety?

What is anxietyExperiencing occasional anxiety is a normal biological response, meaning that the body is preparing for an event requiring extra attention or a burst of adrenaline. However, when feelings of anxiety start to become a constant companion or linger for a long time after a stressor has gone away, it is known as an anxiety disorder.

Like many other mental health conditions, Anxiety differs from normal feelings of anxiousness and nervousness. People with anxiety disorders may have an intrusive and persistent fear of something that poses no actual danger. Examples of anxiety disorders include generalized anxiety disorder, separation anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder (previously called social phobia), and panic disorder.

When there is intense anxiety or distress, an individual will regularly experience anxiety symptoms, which may include a panic attack. Panic attacks are sudden and repeated periods of intense fear without the presence of actual danger.

In addition, if anxiety impacts an individual's ability to live fully, it can become a mental health problem. A combination of genetic and environmental factors determine an individual's risk for anxiety disorders. Furthermore, individuals with other mental health disorders, such as depression, often also have an anxiety disorder.


Risk Factors for Anxiety Disorders

Some general risk factors exist for all types of anxiety disorders, including certain personality traits, traumatic events in early childhood or adulthood, and a family history of anxiety or other mental disorders.  


The Origins of Anxiety Disorders

The idea of anxiety as a mental disorder refers to Sigmund Freud, the father of modern psychology. When the mind experiences what Freud called excitement, a person acts in a way that results in a pleasant outcome. When that excitement was potentially dangerous or contradicted societal norms, Freud called that a frustrated excitement or anxiety. At this time, anxiety was viewed as a kind of neurosis. Freud's goal was to cure anxiety; to be considered balanced and healthy in that era, a person needed to eliminate anxiety.

In the mid-twentieth century, philosophers began to see the merit in a study of anxiety based on neurosis. Psychologists began to understand that anxiety was a definite part of the human condition. It could not be removed as Freud had originally hypothesized.  

The American Psychological Association first incorporated Generalized Anxiety Disorder into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in 1980. Although disorders with similar symptoms had been previously recorded in the DSM, this was the first time that GAD was classified as its entity.


The Science Behind Anxiety

An anxiety disorder is caused due to specific processes in the brain that tend to manifest themselves as physical reactions and symptoms. During an anxiety response, the brain has an influx of cortisol and adrenaline. Adrenaline is a hormone that provides a burst of energy. It is responsible for triggering what is known as the fight or flight response. Cortisol has many bodily functions but is commonly secreted as a response to stress. Responses to this release can vary from person to person since most cells in the human body can receive cortisol.

Together, these two hormones heighten an individual's senses, preparing them for perceived danger. Once the perceived danger is gone, the brain secretes more hormones to help achieve a calm state. The inability of the brain to reach a state of calm is a key characterization of an anxiety disorder.

The part of the brain responsible for alerting the rest of the body to potentially dangerous situations is called the amygdala. It is in the brain's area responsible for mood and emotions. In individuals with an anxiety disorder, the amygdala is quite large, often sending false alarms, making individuals feel anxious even when no danger is present.


Signs of an Anxiety Disorder

Physical symptoms related to anxiety include trembling, weakness, muscle tension, trouble sleeping, shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, digestive issues, nausea, frequent headaches, stomach pain, panic attacks, and uncontrollable sweating.


How are Anxiety Disorders Diagnosed?

how anxiety is diagnosedAn individual is referred to a mental health professional for a psychological evaluation to diagnose anxiety disorders. While no labs or tests can diagnose anxiety disorders, the provider might order lab tests to rule out physical conditions causing the symptoms.


Treating Anxiety

While anxiety is a very complex topic, there are various ways to manage stress and mitigate the effects of anxiety. For example, simple activities can help soothe the mental and physical signs of anxiety, which include meditation, long baths, resting in the dark, yoga, deep breathing exercises, and replacing negative thoughts with positive ones. Joining support groups can also encourage individuals to share coping strategies and experiences.


Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive behavioral therapy is one of the most highly recommended treatment paths for anxiety. This technique uses a two-pronged approach to help lessen the effects of anxiety. This therapy looks at cognition from one direction and focuses on monitoring thought patterns. This step will help an individual develop the ability to recognize when irrational or anxious thoughts are taking over. The behavioral approach comes from the other direction, which aims to help expose a person slowly to the things that might trigger anxiety. These two combined strategies can help those suffering from anxiety understand their thought processes and lessen their anxiety overall. Stress management and psychotherapy can help relieve symptoms of anxiety.



Psychotherapy, known as talk therapy, can help individuals with an anxiety disorder. For talk therapy to be effective, it must be directed and tailored toward an individual's specific anxieties and needs. It can also help an individual deal with the emotional response to the disorder.


Exposure Therapy

Exposure therapy focuses on dealing with fears underlying the anxiety disorder by enabling individuals to engage in activities or situations they may have been avoiding. Relaxation exercises and imagery may be used alongside exposure therapy. Creating a mental image of successfully conquering a specific fear can also help relieve anxiety symptoms if the anxiety disorder relates to a specific phobia.


Relaxation Response Training

Another successful strategy for dealing with anxiety is called relaxation response training. The relaxation response happens when the body calms down after an anxious response. People with anxiety often struggle to produce this response. There are several excellent techniques for training this response. Meditation is a common one. It is an effective strategy to help individuals calm down and heighten their self-awareness.

Breathing techniques are also a great way to train the relaxation response. A commonly used strategy is diaphragmatic breathing. This technique ensures that an individual breathes fully every time they take a breath instead of taking many shallow breaths. Progressive muscle relaxation is another commonly used technique. The technique involves tensing and then releasing each muscle in the body and often helps to bring awareness to the tension an individual may not have noticed before.  



During anxiety, the body goes into a fight-or-flight state, producing an adrenaline rush. The adrenaline the body creates can be utilized in a relaxation response by doing something active. No specific type of exercise has to be done; going for a jog, walking, weightlifting, or doing HITT can help alleviate anxiety. Yoga is also another great form of exercise for individuals with anxiety. It incorporates focused breathing, gentle movement, and stretching into one great practice.



Another commonly used approach to dealing with anxiety is anti-anxiety medications. Several categories of medication can help treat anxiety disorders. One category is antidepressant medications. Even without depression, antidepressants have a high success rate in treating anxiety.

Another common medication type is selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). SSRIs help increase the amount of serotonin in the body by preventing it from reabsorbing into the brain. Typically SSRIs are known for being a safe medication with minimal (though not non-existent) side effects. Medications can help relieve anxiety symptoms but will not cure anxiety disorders. It is critical to monitor any individual symptoms during anxiety, as certain behaviors and medications can worsen them.



There are various types of anxiety disorders. Anxiety is a prevalent and manageable mental disorder with many subcategories. The causes of an anxiety disorder can vary drastically from one person to another, but it is essential to remember that experiencing anxiety is very natural. Anxiety or anxious responses are the body's signaling that we might be in danger. However, when anxiety becomes a constant and unmanageable phenomenon, it is time for the individual to consider finding strategies to cope with it.



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