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.

Getting help for anxiety

Many anxiety conditions respond well to talking therapies, in particular cognitive behavioural therapy.  If your anxiety condition is particularly strong, your GP may recommend some anti-depressant medication that are particularly helpful in reducing the physical sensations of anxiety.  In these cases, a combination of drug therapy and talking therapies can really address the problem of anxiety.

Anxiety will also respond to self help.  As a rule if you can find a relaxation method that works for you, and you keep practising it, you can then start to expose yourself to whatever makes you anxious, whilst using the relaxation technique.  Therapists call this technique ‘situational exposure’.The golden rule with anxiety is to continue to face whatever it is that you are afraid of, and you will learn that your anxiety will reduce.

However, if you feel that psychotherapy will help you to tackle your anxiety, and help you to reclaim your life, please contact me to find out more.

Is something 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!

Nothing 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!

Types of anxiety conditions

There are many different ways in which anxiety can manifest in your life.  Read on to find out about more specific anxiety disorders.

Panic Disorder

People with panic disorder have feelings of terror that strike suddenly and repeatedly with no warning. They cannot predict when an attack will occur, and many develop intense anxiety between episodes, worrying when and where the next attack will strike.

Panic disorder is often accompanied by other conditions such as depression or alcoholism, and may spawn phobias, which can develop in places or situations where panic attacks have occurred. For example, if a panic attack strikes while you are in a lift, you may develop a fear of  lifts and perhaps start avoiding them.

What is a panic attack?

The person suddenly develops a severe fear or discomfort that peaks within 10 minutes.

During this discrete episode, 4 or more of the following symptoms occur:

Chest pain or other chest discomfort
Chills or hot flashes
Choking sensation
Derealization (feeling unreal) or depersonalization (feeling detached from self)
Dizzy, lightheaded, faint or unsteady
Fear of dying
Fears of loss of control or becoming insane
Heart pounds, races or skips beats
Nausea or other abdominal discomfort
Numbness or tingling
Shortness of breath or smothering sensation

Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

If constant worries and fears distract you from your day-to-day activities or you’re troubled by a persistent feeling that something bad is going to happen, you may be suffering from generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). People with GAD are chronic worriers who feel anxious nearly all of the time, though they may not even know why. Anxiety related to GAD often shows up as physical symptoms like insomnia, stomach upset, restlessness, and fatigue.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)

OCD is characterized by unwanted thoughts or behaviors that seem impossible to stop or control. If you have OCD, you may be troubled by obsessions, such as a recurring worry that you forgot to turn off the oven or that you might hurt someone. You may also suffer from uncontrollable compulsions, such as washing your hands over and over, or distressing intrusive thoughts or images.


A phobia is an unrealistic or exaggerated fear of a specific object, activity, or situation that in reality presents little to no danger. Common phobias include fear of animals such as snakes and spiders, fear of flying, and fear of heights. In the case of a severe phobia, you might go to extreme lengths to avoid the thing you fear. Unfortunately, avoidance only strengthens the phobia.

Social Phobia

If you have a debilitating fear of being seen negatively by others and humiliated in public, you may have social anxiety disorder, also known as social phobia. Social anxiety disorder can be thought of as extreme shyness. In severe cases, social situations are avoided altogether. Performance anxiety (better known as stage fright) is the most common type of social phobia.