What is Anxiety?
Anxiety is a survival instinct that has evolved over millions of years in order to protect us. It is a series of reflexes and responses that affect our
mind and body as we become pepared to avoid or deal with dangerous situations.
How anxiety works.
... Imagine you're lying on a beach. It's a beautiful day, the sun is shining and there is a gentle breeze wafting over your body. Sounds of nature fill
the air as you chat and laugh with family and friends. You are surrounded by people that you love and respect and who love and respect you. You feel warm,
contented and happy, totally relaxed, anxiety-free.
Now imagine a very different scene. It's the dead of night, you are walking alone down a dimly-lit alley. There are doorways on either side – who knows
what's hiding in them, waiting to pounce?
You are scared, your senses are heightened. Your sight and hearing have become more sensitive, able to pinpoint the slightest movement or sound. Your breathing
and heartbeat have become more rapid, you feel light-headed and dizzy, want to go to the toilet or throw up, your limbs feel shaky and your whole body is now
charged with energy, full of anxiety, ready to fight or flee, possibly for your life.
These two scenes represent either end of the anxiety scale. In the first we feel warm, secure and safe, we are fully relaxed. In the second we are really anxious,
prepared for danger – highly alert and scared.
Anxiety protects us in 2 main ways:-
It helps to prepare our body for action, making us more alert and ready to fight
or flee from any imminent threat to our survival. This is responsible for the direct physical sensations (such as rapid heartbeat, fast breathing, being jittery and on-edge,
trembling etc.) that we feel when anxious. In real danger we can go from being totally relaxed to extremely anxious in an instant which is panic.
This aspect of anxiety forms the basis of problems such as general nervousness, social phobias (in fact, almost all phobias) and panic disorder.
It causes us to plan ahead for any potential dangers and how to deal with
them – an excellent survival strategy (it's better to deal with a danger or avoid it before we get into the situation) but an unfortunate effect of this is that we can
get anxious / nervous just thinking about situations.
A main ingredient in many anxiety problems, this relates to symptoms such as excessive and
obsessive thinking, planning and worrying. It underlies anxiety disorders such as obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and
also plays a major role in severe depression.
The preparation to avoid danger completely or deal with it by fighting or fleeing gives rise to a multitude of symptoms.
Symptoms Caused by Anxiety
Anxiety can cause a large range of symptoms that affect our body, mind and behaviour.
Our heartbeat speeds up and breathing becomes faster and more shallow.
may lead to feelings of tightness across the chest.
We start to feel shaky, dizzy and light-headed; our legs feel like jelly and we
start to sweat.
The mouth feels dry and it becomes hard to swallow.
We might feel sick, our stomach churning.
And need the toilet more often.
We may feel frightened (for no apparent reason) and begin to worry about
more and more.
Or start to believe that we are physically ill, having a heart attack or sroke,
We may feel that other people are looking at us more.
And worry that we may lose control or make a fool of ourselves in front of
Often there is an overwhelming urge to escape and get to a safe
Depending on what we find stressful...
We may begin to make excuses to avoid going out or doing certain things.
And rush out of places or situations where we feel anxious.
Often we start to avoid things and situations that make us feel anxious.
And may have a drink or take a tablet before doing something we find
Everybody has anxiety; it is a part of being alive. Although we may not realise it, it is with us all at varying strengths throughout our
Without anxiety (over the fear of being knocked down) we wouldn't be
when we crossed the road.
Without anxiety (over not having food and shelter) we wouldn't go to work
Without anxiety over failure and humiliation the performances of
entertainers, executives, students etc. would be nowhere near as good.
To have anxiety is to be human. Mild threat or danger makes us nervous and slightly anxious. In times of real danger anxiety comes to us more quickly and much
stronger for we need to take action. When the threat is imminent it becomes panic and all of the symptoms (racing heart, fast breathing, trembling etc.) happen almost
instantly ... this is how anxiety works.
Problems with anxiety arise when we start to feel anxious more often and more intensely when there is no (real) danger and it seems to happen without reason.
It is this persistent, unexplained anxiety that can give rise to a whole host of related problems and disorders.
›› Learn more about anxiety
problems and disorders
The Collins English Dictionary describes anxiety as "a state of uneasiness or tension caused by apprehension of possible misfortune, danger etc." and to
be anxious is to be "worried and tense."
Latin anxietas gave anxiety in English; the base is Latin anxius, from angere 'to choke'
Anxiety & Depression
Association of America
The Royal College of