What Is Anxiety?
Have you ever felt your palms growing sweaty and your breathing growing more rapid, with your nerves feeling like they’re twisted up so tight you feel a little faint? Maybe it happened just before you were to give a big presentation, or start a new job. Perhaps you’ve felt it just before a first date, or shortly before boarding a plane to an unknown destination一or maybe it’s something that comes over you every time you need to have an uncomfortable or difficult conversation. This feeling is known as anxiety.
For many people, the reaction is one that’s pervasive, and hard to stop. In fact, it is one of the world’s biggest mental health issues. According to The World Health Organization, up to 3.6 percent of the global population has anxiety. Leaving anxiety untreated can seriously impact many aspects of our lives, both physically and mentally. However, we can learn to stop these worrying feelings from occupying and controlling our minds一first, by learning where these fears come from, then finding practical ways to prevent them from taking over your life.
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Is Anxiety An Emotion?
The American Psychological Association defines anxiety as “an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes.” People with anxiety can find it difficult to stop worrying, which can lead to serious consequences that include the inability to function normally—for example, not being able to think rationally or interact with others. Anxiety can also lead to physical changes, such as an abnormally high heartbeat or excessive sweating.
Anxiety is an umbrella term that covers various nuances to the emotion. The different types can be harmful however, all with the underlying thread of occupying a person’s mind with unrealistic thoughts and worries that don’t easily go away. If left untreated, they could escalate into something detrimental. Regardless of whether the symptoms are mild or severe, it’s important to try and keep anxiety under control, to stop it from interfering with daily life, from job performance to social relationships.
Types of Anxiety
Anxiety exists in many different forms. The following is a list of common types of anxiety disorders:
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD): People with GAD worry excessively about most aspects of life such as health, money, family, or work, often expecting something catastrophic to happen, with no obvious reason why. This constant fear can affect normal daily functioning, such as the ability to think clearly, an excessive heart rate, and sweating.
- Panic Disorder: This type of anxiety causes a person to experience frequent and sudden panic attacks. A panic attack can be very frightening, as it can involve a rush of physical and psychological signs such as a sudden rise in heart rate, chest pain, and dizziness.
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): PTSD is a mental health issue developed from experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. These events are typically distressing and shocking, such as natural disasters, abuse, or traffic accidents. People with PTSD can become anxious when feeling triggered by objects or environments that remind them of the traumatic event.
- Phobias: People with phobia show an unreasonable level of fear when encountering a specific stimulus, such as objects or environments. Phobias — which there are many types of, such as acrophobia (an intense fear of heights), or trypophobia (the fear of clusters of small holes) — can cause symptoms like anxious feelings and avoidant behavior.
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD): Individuals with OCD have compulsive behaviors stemming from an obsession. For example, if one has an obsession with “cleanness,” they may develop a compulsive need to wash their hands frequently, extra thoroughly, or a specific number of times, when encountering anything they may deem unsanitary. OCD isn’t always exhibited through actions一it can also be experienced through obsessive thoughts or repetitive behaviors that feel uncontrollable, and can interfere with someone’s life.
- Social Anxiety Disorder: People with this disorder can become highly anxious in social settings. For example, they may have great difficulty talking to others and worrying intensely before and during social situations. Social anxiety disorder can severely damage one’s ability to work and build relationships.
- Separation Anxiety Disorder: More commonly experienced by children, this anxiety is characterized by the fear of being separated from a parent or someone viewed as a caregiver. When children with separation anxiety disorder get older, this mental health issue can influence their future relationships. For example, they may become an overprotective parent or a needy or codependent partner. Separation anxiety can also be brought on by the experience of a traumatic event.
What Are the Causes of Anxiety?
It can be difficult to understand the specific causes of developing anxiety. Because they are so often tied to the unique aspects of someone’s life, the many factors involved in the onset of anxiety can be highly individual. However, there are some common triggers:
- Genetic Factors: People with certain genes are more vulnerable to developing anxiety. For example, research suggests that a person is five times more likely to have anxiety if they have a family background of it, or are blood-related with a family member who has the condition.
- Biological Sex: Women are more vulnerable to developing anxiety than men because female hormones can more easily activate an intense or prolonged fight-or-flight response. Another reason might be that women are more likely to seek help for mental health issues.
- Stress: Stressful life events can increase one’s risk of developing anxiety. As such, stress about work, relationships, or financial burdens can increase anxiety. Although anxiety and stress may sound similar, stress is more about one's environment and outside factors, while anxiety is more about internal thoughts and worries.
- Drug or Alcohol Consumption: Many drugs and alcohol carry side effects that make a person more vulnerable to anxiety. For example, medicines like stimulants and steroids, alcohol, or drinks containing high levels of caffeine, can increase one’s heart rate and cause mood swings.
- Brain Chemistry: Anxiety can be caused by overactivity in brain regions responsible for emotional regulation, including the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. An imbalance of brain chemicals associated with mood can also increase the risk of anxiety. These chemicals might include serotonin, the “feel-good” hormone.
- Chronic Health Conditions: Individuals who suffer from long-term health conditions such as cancer and arthritis have higher chances of developing or experiencing anxiety. People with chronic problems may feel constantly worried about their health. Side effects of medications can also affect the brain in this regard.
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Signs of Anxiety
Anxiety can lead to various symptoms that affect both the mind and body. Below are some of the more commonly-experienced ones, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
- Excessive Anxiety and Worry: People with anxiety disorder can feel anxious and worried about daily activities like going to work or school. A person may have a high chance of having anxiety disorder if this feeling of anxiousness happens most days within a prolonged (e.g. six month) period.
- Uncontrollable Worries: Individuals with anxiety can find it difficult to manage their worries. The worrying may occur at any moment and is highly unpredictable. As a result, anxiety can make people feel confused about their emotions, and this negative feeling can regularly impact their well-being.
- Physical Symptoms: Anxiety doesn’t just affect our emotional state一it can also harm the body, with many possible physical symptoms. People with anxiety may experience excessive sweating, an increased heart rate, and muscle tension. Anxiety can also make people appear or feel tired and restless.
- Trouble Concentrating: People with anxiety may find it hard to concentrate and focus on the present due to their frequent worry about the future. This aspect can include difficulty paying attention, impaired cognitive functions, or a reduced ability to make decisions and memorize new information.
- Easily Irritated: Since anxiety can cause significant changes to normal bodily functions, it can also make people more stressed. Remaining in an ongoing tense or worried state can more easily trigger anger and overreaction to small things in life that usually would not instigate such a reaction when in a calm state. Constant irritability can also damage our relationships.
- Sleep Disturbances: People with anxiety may encounter sleep disturbances that can affect their health in several ways. Excessive worry and fear can make it more difficult for someone to fall asleep, which might cause them to develop sleep problems like insomnia, or experience fitful or low-quality sleep.
Treatments for Anxiety
If you suspect that you or your loved ones may be experiencing difficulties due to anxiety, don’t fret: there are people who can help you, and anxiety can be treated. Clinically, both psychotherapy and medications can be used to make symptoms more manageable. Complementary methods, including making lifestyle changes or committing to healing practices, can also make a big difference in overcoming anxiety. Below are some common treatment methods.
- Psychotherapy: Various psychological treatments have been found to be effective in reducing symptoms of anxiety. One example is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which helps individuals with anxiety understand how their thought patterns can lead to their worries. Another is Exposure Therapy, which aims to enable people to overcome their fear by repeatedly exposing them to the stimulus in question.
- Medications: If symptoms become severe and beyond one’s control, a psychotherapist may refer you to a psychiatrist, who can prescribe medication to manage the physical symptoms like an abnormal heart rate or excessive sweating. Some medications can also help raise serotonin levels, to facilitate a boost in positive feelings. However, before taking any medications, it is always important to consult a qualified healthcare professional, taking careful note that certain medications can also have undesirable side-effects.
- Applied Relaxation: This technique aims to reduce anxiety symptoms by teaching people ways to relax their muscles. Through it, with the help of a therapist, people struggling with anxiety can learn to develop a habit of intentionally relaxing their muscles during events or situations that cause them worry. It operates under the philosophy of "calming the body first, then the mind."
- Mindfulness: Anxiety often stems from worrying about or fearing the future. Establishing a mindfulness practice can help us find more peace by teaching us to live in the present moment more often. Mindfulness has also been found to reduce stress levels, which may in turn help to reduce anxiety.
- Being Aware of Your Habits: Having the self-awareness to understand what behaviors contribute to making us more anxious can be a start to tackling them. By establishing better habits, we can design a lifestyle that is better-served for removing some of our triggers and decreasing anxiety-inducing states or situations. Cultivating good habits such as exercising regularly, going to sleep earlier at night, or getting rid of bad habits like smoking, can help manage symptoms of anxiety.
- Be Careful What You Eat: You know the famous saying, “You are what you eat”? Eating a nutritious and wholesome diet can be key to keeping anxiety symptoms under control. Whether it’s making your heart beat faster, or making you feel more sensitive to other physiological changes, certain foods can make you feel more anxious, while others may help calm you more. For instance, drinks containing higher levels of caffeine ー such as strong coffee or intensive energy drinks ー can be over-stimulating, while foods rich in magnesium ー like leafy greens ー or those known as adaptogens can help to keep us more calm.
- Talk It Out: Dealing with anxiety on your own can be challenging, as you may feel like nobody understands the challenges and struggles you are going through. Consider reaching out to others you can relate to by joining an anxiety support group at community centers or through online platforms. Alternatively, you can seek help from a mental health professional.
Anxiety can be a stressful, difficult, and overwhelming issue to confront, and it can be sustained in both mild and severe ways. If you suffer from anxiety, just remember: you’re not alone, and it is experienced by many people all over the world 一 and there are ways to help you overcome it.
All of the content on our website is thoroughly researched to ensure that the information shared is evidence-based. For more information, please visit the academic journals and other resources that influenced this article: Depression and Other Common Mental Disorders - Global Health Estimates; Anxiety; What are the Five Major Types of Anxiety Disorders?; Overview - Generalised Anxiety Disorder in Adults; Your Gender May Be Causing Your Worries; DSM-IV to DSM-5 Generalized Anxiety Disorder Comparison; Treatment - Generalised Anxiety Disorder in Adults; Yoga and Mindfulness for Anxiety and Depression and the Role of Mental Health Professionals: A Literature Review; Effects of Caffeine on Anxiety and Depression.
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