Understanding Anxiety

What is anxiety?

All people feel anxiety--whether it is the butterflies in your stomach before you ask someone out on a date or the rush of anxiety that propels you out the door when you are running late. Often these feelings of anxiety are uncomfortable, but anxiety is a normal part of being a human being.

In fact, anxiety, panic and worry are all part of the way humans experience fear. Each of these aspects involves the anticipation of danger or threat. We define anxiety as a normal innate emotional alarm response to the anticipation of danger or threat. This means that fear is part of our biological make-up as human beings. We don't learn to how to become anxious--we are born with it because it helps us to survive. Anxiety serves as an "alarm" to protect us from harmful aspects of our environment. Taken together this definition means that anxiety is an innate, protective response to our environment.

Panic is similar to anxiety and we define panic as a normal, innate emotional alarm response to the perception of immediate danger or threat. Similar to anxiety, panic is triggered when the threat is immediate--a burglar breaking into your home would likely elicit panic, while the fear of such an event happening in the future would generate anxiety.

Worry is also a normal, adaptive response to threat. Worry is a mental strategy that is used to avoid future danger. Anxiety serves to notify us of an upcoming threat or danger and worry stimulates us to find a solution to a problem or a way of escaping from the danger.

What is there to fear?

If these feelings can be so uncomfortable, why do we have them? The answer is simple: Protection! The body has developed anxiety, panic, and worry as a protective alarm system to aid in coping with potential threats and dangers. This protective alarm system is even more amazing when you consider that the protective function really exists on two levels. We are set up to respond to threats in two ways: a "preparation" mode and a "reaction" mode.

The preparation mode, consisting of anxiety and worry, helps us to prepare for future danger or to help prepare us for threats which may be delayed. In essence this type of fear tells us "You are not in danger...YET! But let's prepare for what may lie ahead."

The reaction mode is designed to help us cope with immediate threats and functions as an escape alarm. It is more intense and shorter-acting than anxiety and is designed to help us deal with immediate danger. While true panic only lasts a few seconds it prepares us to get out of the way of danger. This is often referred to as a "fight or flight" reaction--being able to face the danger (fight) or run from it (flight).

Even in today's word, when we aren't likely to be chased by lions, tigers or bears, this alarm system still serves a useful function. Just imagine if you were crossing a street when suddenly a car sped toward you blasting its horn. If you experienced absolutely no anxiety, it is likely that you would be killed. However, it is more likely that you would panic--feeling a rush of adrenaline--and would run to safety.

  • The moral of the story: Even though fear isn't a pleasant emotion, it is necessary to our survival. Anxiety, worry and panic are designed to protect us, not to hurt us!

How do I know if something is wrong?

It can be difficult to tell if your level of anxiety is too much. A good rule of thumb is "how much does this impair my life or keep me from doing the things I would like to do." Remember, since we see anxiety as a normal part of life there are certain times that anxiety can actually be helpful. For example, research suggests that there is an optimal level of anxiety that contributes to positive test performance. Too much anxiety and you can't concentrate. But too little anxiety impairs performance as well. So feeling stressed about important upcoming events or in the face of challenging life events is not enough to diagnose an anxiety disorder.

However, if anxiety is "ruining your life" or if you feel stressed out all the time, the following are some symptoms that indicate that you have "too much" anxiety:

  • anxiety attacks
  • sleeplessness
  • muscle tension
  • poor concentration
  • physical problems such as frequent upset stomach
  • irritability
  • fatigue
  • excessive feelings of embarrassment in social situations

It is important to remember that each one of these alone can make you feel terrible, but having an anxiety disorder means struggling with a variety of anxiety symptoms. In other words, your protective alarm is going off just a bit too often and too early!

What can I do about my anxiety?

Fortunately, there are some incredibly effective treatments for anxiety disorders. We hope you will take some time to explore our site and find out more about current treatments, up to the minute research, and information about anxiety disorders. If you are suffering from an anxiety disorder you are not alone--We're here to help! Please, contact us for more information.