Anxiety, an emotional state in which people feel uneasy, apprehensive, or fearful. People usually experience anxiety about events they cannot control or predict, or about events that seem threatening or dangerous. For example, students taking an important test may feel anxious because they cannot predict the test questions or feel certain of a good grade. People often use the words fear and anxiety to describe the same thing. Fear also describes a reaction to immediate danger characterized by a strong desire to escape the situation.
The physical symptoms of anxiety reflect a chronic “readiness” to deal with some future threat. These symptoms may include fidgeting, muscle tension, sleeping problems, and headaches. Higher levels of anxiety may produce such symptoms as rapid heartbeat, sweating, increased blood pressure, nausea, and dizziness.
All people experience anxiety to some degree. Most people feel anxious when faced with a new situation, such as a first date, or when trying to do something well, such as give a public speech. A mild to moderate amount of anxiety in these situations is normal and even beneficial. Anxiety can motivate people to prepare for an upcoming event and can help keep them focused on the task at hand.
However, too little anxiety or too much anxiety can cause problems. Individuals who feel no anxiety when faced with an important situation may lack alertness and focus. On the other hand, individuals who experience an abnormally high amount of anxiety often feel overwhelmed, immobilized, and unable to accomplish the task at hand. People with too much anxiety often suffer from one of the anxiety disorders – a group of mental illnesses. These include generalized anxiety disorder, phobias, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder
People with generalized anxiety disorder feel anxious most of the time. They worry excessively about routine events or circumstances in their lives. Their worries often relate to finances, family, personal health, and relationships with others. Although they recognize their anxiety as irrational or out of proportion to actual events, they feel unable to control their worrying. For example, they may worry uncontrollably and intensely about money despite evidence that their financial situation is stable. Children with this disorder typically worry about their performance at school or about catastrophic events, such as tornadoes, earthquakes, and nuclear war.
People with generalized anxiety disorder often find that their worries interfere with their ability to function at work or concentrate on tasks. Physical symptoms, such as disturbed sleep, irritability, muscle aches, and tension, may accompany the anxiety.
A phobia is an excessive, enduring fear of clearly defined objects or situations that interferes with a person’s normal functioning. Although they know their fear is irrational, people with phobias always try to avoid the source of their fear. Common phobias include fear of heights (acrophobia), fear of enclosed places (claustrophobia), fear of insects, snakes, or other animals, and fear of air travel. Social phobias involve a fear of performing, of critical evaluation, or of being embarrassed in front of other people.
Panic is an intense, overpowering surge of fear. People with panic disorder experience panic attacks—periods of quickly escalating, intense fear and discomfort accompanied by such physical symptoms as rapid heartbeat, trembling, shortness of breath, dizziness, and nausea. Because people with this disorder cannot predict when these attacks will strike, they develop anxiety about having additional panic attacks and may limit their activities outside the home.
In obsessive-compulsive disorder, people persistently experience certain intrusive thoughts or images (obsessions) or feel compelled to perform certain behaviors (compulsions). Obsessions may include unwanted thoughts about inadvertently poisoning others or injuring a pedestrian while driving. Common compulsions include repetitive hand washing or such mental acts as repeated counting. People with this disorder often perform compulsions to reduce the anxiety produced by their obsessions. The obsessions and compulsions significantly interfere with their ability to function and may consume a great deal of time.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Post-traumatic stress disorder sometimes occurs after people experience traumatic or catastrophic events, such as physical or sexual assaults, natural disasters, accidents, and wars. People with this disorder relive the traumatic event through recurrent dreams or intrusive memories called flashbacks. They avoid things or places associated with the trauma and may feel emotionally detached or estranged from others. Other symptoms may include difficulty sleeping, irritability, and trouble concentrating.
Most anxiety disorders do not have an obvious cause. They result from a combination of biological – genetic and neurobiology; psychological – internal unconscious conflicts; and social factors – stress.
Mental health professionals use a variety of methods to help people overcome anxiety disorders. These include psychoactive drugs and psychotherapy, particularly behavior therapy. Other techniques, such as exercise, hypnosis, meditation, and biofeedback, may also prove helpful.