What is Anxiety?

Anxiety isn’t mysterious: it has been a natural response to all the uncertainty in the world since our conception as a species. The only problem is that it is easily misunderstood, and commonly stigmatized. Telling the average individual ‘I suffer from anxiety’ pretty much translates to ‘my self-management skills is inferior’ or ‘I have extreme shyness’.

Adapted from //www.sayfc.org/

We start with differentiating fear from anxiety.

Fear deals with the present. It is an unpleasant sensation as a result of your brain telling your body to ‘hold it’: an emotional response to a real or imminent threat that is present. Your senses identify a clear source of danger and instantly cues your sympathetic nervous system to enter ‘fight or flight’ mode.

Adapted from //media.npr.org/

Anxiety is a similar response, but the main source is cognition (blended with emotion) about the future. In short, when we perceive a future threat (real or perceived), we become anxious. This response is unique to organisms who are capable of using memories to model the future and respond appropriately. For instance, if one has not prepared adequately for a test due tomorrow, the uncomfortable feeling mixed with anticipation of the test and the negative consequences if one does not do well is anxiety.

Adapted from //www.jonathanherron.com/

From here we can draw some inferences about the relations between fear and anxiety. it is likely that anxiety is the result of memorizing fear responses: the fearful response (natural or learned) develops into an anxiety, which prompts the individual to anticipate and deal with the potential threat. Due to the myriad of emotion processing theories, there is no conclusion on whether the anticipated threat comes first or if the anxiety comes first. 

Adapted from //image.slidesharecdn.com/

Now that a rough understanding of anxiety is established, when is anxiety significant enough to warrant a clinical diagnosis? or rather when is it abnormal?

Basically, when one’s anxiety or fear develops to the extent where it interferes with normal functioning, one can be diagnosed as having anxiety disorder. There is a variety of anxiety disorders that are documented on the DSM as diagnosable disorders, but they all involve anxiety that is uncontrollable, which in turn lowers the victim’s sense of self-control and disrupting regular activities in life. Most common examples include generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, specific phobias, and panic disorder. We wrap this up with a rough guide to differentiate them.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder: excessive worry and anxiety due to constantly living in a future oriented mood state.

Social Anxiety Disorder: excessive fear of being judged negatively in social situations.

Specific Phobias: crippling fear towards a specific stimuli (object or situation), ranging from animals to physical environments.

Panic Disorder: involves frequent panic attacks-surge of intense fear as a result of uncued activation of the fight or flight response.

Adapted from //img.buzzfeed.com/


Some descriptions of how anxiety disorders feel like can be found in the below links.

Explain Anxiety to Someone Who Doesn’t Get it 



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JY is a counselling trainee at Monash University Malaysia under the Master of Professional Counselling program and writes psychology articles to procrastinate from his counselling paperwork and assignments. His interests are in individual differences, psychotherapy, and helping the public understand psychology(s) as a profession. Occasionally reviews books and promote person-centered psychotherapy.

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