What is Anxiety?
Anxiety is a part of being human, we all have it. But just what is anxiety? Why do we get it? And
how does it work?
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 prepared 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:-
1. 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 makes us feel physically scared, particularly when our heart speeds up. Indeed, some research shows that
heartbeat rate may be one of the main indicators of anxiousness. In one experiment – what distinguished those
bomb disposal volunteers (all heroes) that had been decorated for gallantry from those that had not was the rate of their
heartbeat. The ones that received medals maintained a lower cardiac rate when making stressful
Here, anxiety forms the basis of problems such as general nervousness, social phobias (in fact, almost all phobias)
and panic disorder.
2. 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.
This aspect of anxiety leads to being mentally scared and apprehensive and involves vague thoughts that something bad may
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 is associated with a multitude of symptoms.
Symptoms Associated with 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. This 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 often 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.
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'
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1. Rachman, S. J. (1983) Fear and courage among military bomb disposal operators. Advances in Behaviour Research and
Therapy, 4, 99–165