Updated: Feb 16, 2020
What Is Anxiety?
Anxiety is normal part of life for everyone. Taking an exam, meeting with a boss or authority figure, having a near accident, starting a new job, or traveling by airplane can all evoke anxiety. Anxiety can even be helpful in preparing for a challenge or change. However, persistent or intense anxiety is abnormal, especially when it interferes with daily life. In such cases, it can become an anxiety disorder requiring professional help.
Anxiety disorders are surprisingly common, and their incidence appears to be rising due to increasing stress and uncertainty in the world. It is estimated that one out of every four adults will have some form of severe anxiety at some point in their lifetime. Anxiety is the most common emotional disorder, out ranking all others, including depression an substance abuse. Indeed, it is estimated that up to 40 percent of those who are dependent on drugs or alcohol have a severe anxiety disorder they are attempting to “self-medicate” and control.
What Is Anxiety and Why Is It So Prevalent Today”
Anxiety is related to our survival instinct. Normally, when we are confronted with danger or a life-threatening situation, our bodies react quickly with an automatic survival mechanism, known as the fight/flight response. Briefly, this is an energized state that enables us to effectively confront or flee from a life threat. In response to danger, a survival command center in the brain calls for release of activating hormones that organize all body systems for survival.
Many situations can trigger the fight/flight reaction, particularly in sensitive people, even if those situations are not life-threatening. This is precisely what happens in most cases of anxiety: A person reacts as though there is a life-threatening situation when no actual danger exists.
It is normal to fear danger or a threat to our lives. As part our survival instinct, fear is a natural and adaptive reaction. Anxiety, on the other hand, can be understood as a fear response when there is no actual danger or threat. Anxiety is a maladaptive response because it is a reaction to imagined or perceived threat, or an anticipated threat that is not occurring in the present.
In many cases, anxiety develops as a learned reaction to past fears and extreme stress. For example, if you have a traumatic experience in a particular situation – say, a panic attack while driving a car or a nervous feeling while giving a presentation in front of other people – you may begin to perceive that activity as “dangerous.” Thereafter, just thinking about entering the situation – driving a car or giving a presentation – will set the fight/flight survival reaction in motion. In other words, certain situations or places become linked to a negative emotional experience and its associated body reactions, and these situations are then perceived as threatening. Some typical “phobic situations” are traveling away from home, flying, being alone, shopping in a crowded stores or malls, meetings, and social gatherings. In thee situations, the body reaction itself is normal, but it is triggered by false alarm.
A common denominator in most anxiety conditions is a fight/flight reaction to a place, thought, feeling, or situation, accompanied by an irrational fear of losing control, “going crazy,” embarrassing oneself, having a serious illness, or dying. Worry enters the scene as a form of anticipation of future events in an effort to feel in control. We try to predict what will happen in order to feel prepared. But frequent worry keeps us in a state of anxiety. In the next chapter, we explore the anxiety disorders that develop when this pattern persists.
Sensitivity is a key ingredient in the development of anxiety, and it is important to understand the process of “sensitization.” A main theory suggests that in sensitive people the reaction to a fight/flight response can become a greater source of fear than the stress originally triggering it. It is this sensitivity that accounts for the “unusual intensity and disconcerting swiftness” of certain people’s reaction to stress. Most of us have felt the first fear in response to danger. It comes quickly, is normal in intensity and passes with the danger. However, the sensitized person’s first fear is so electric, so out of proportion to the danger causing it, he usually recoils from it and at the same time adds a second flash – fear of the first fear. He is usually more concerned with the feeling of panic than with the original danger. And because sensitization prolongs the first flash, the second may seem to join it and the two fears are experienced as one. This is why we may feel “bewildered” by anxiety and have difficulty coping with it.
Many everyday experiences involve the same body activation as in the fight/flight response. Consider, for example, the autonomic arousal involved in sexual excitement: heart rate increases, breathing intensifies, body temperature rises, perspiration is profuse, muscles tense, and arousal escalates until orgasm is reached. Another example is exercise, during which heart rate and respiration increase, perspiration is profuse, body temperature rises, and so on. There are virtually the same reactions as the fight/flight response, although they are not triggered by stress or danger. Most people do not perceive these body reactions as a sigh of stress of danger, but for the sensitized person, this type of reaction can trigger anxiety. In such cases, people may avoid exercise or sexual activity because the arousal effects are too similar to anxiety.
Some anxiety symptoms are actually attempts to avoid anxiety. Worrying, for example, is an attempt to anticipate events in order to prepare for what might happen and to feel in control. Similarly, compulsive behaviors, such as double-checking and hoarding things, are ritualized attempts to prevent anxiety. Avoiding anxiety-arousing situations, such as social gatherings, travel public speaking, standing in lines, and being alone, is another mechanism of defense against anxiety. Some of these behavior patterns do, in fact, succeed in warding of anxiety.