What is Anxiety?

There is a lot of talk currently about “anxiety”. There is said to be “normal anxiety”, but anxiety is also said to be linked with many mental health disorders that require treatment. Also, anxiety is talked about in terms of causing or exacerbating medical problems (e.g. cardiac problems, gastro-intestinal problems, decreasing auto-immunity, etc.). So what exactly are we talking about when we talk about anxiety, and how is it different from fear?

Anxiety is a Stress Response

Basically, anxiety is a physiological (or physical) stress response. It is the body’s reaction to a perceived danger or threat. You have probably heard of the “fight or flight” response. This is an evolutionary response that has allowed our species to survive by alerting us to danger and equipping us to handle it in the best way possible. This response involves the two branches of the autonomic nervous system: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic branches. Simply stated, the sympathetic side is the excitatory side whose job it is to increase our arousal or activation level. This is termed the “fight or flight” side. The parasympathetic side is the inhibitory or calming side, whose job it is to decrease our arousal or activation level. This is termed the “rest and digest” side. These two sides of the autonomic nervous system are meant to work together to allow us to be in the best level of activation for whatever situation we are in. Whenever the sympathetic side kicks in there is physical stress because muscles tense, heart rate increases, breath becomes shallow, etc. as we prepare to run or to fight.

If working optimally, the activation of the sympathetic side only lasts as long as the threat is present. Once we are safe, the autonomic nervous system should become rebalanced. In an evolutionary perspective this response developed to help human kind avoid getting eliminated by very real threats to our survival as a species. This is where fear comes in. Fear is a stress response to a definite and present threat to our survival. For example, if we are about to be eaten by a sabre toothed tiger. Once that danger is no longer present, we are designed to relax, and return to our baseline to recharge and get ready for the next definite and present threat. Anxiety was not possible until our brains had evolved and were able to imagine possible future threats. This was a good thing in that it allowed us to plan, which was a big advantage over other species. But, the down side is it enabled us to have a stress response to a future, not present in the here and now, threat. The threat only existed in our minds.

Child crying, anxious and alone

What is the difference between anxiety and fear?

Anxiety and fear involve the same physical reaction (i.e. sympathetic nervous system activation). The difference lies in the cause of the activation. Is it a present danger or is it an imagined threat about the future? In either case, the body and the brain are stressed. I think you can see how it is easier to relax when a physically present danger is no longer present versus a situation where the threat is basically in our mind. Unfortunately the body and the brain do not distinguish between a real and present threat versus one that is only in our mind at present. In either case, a stress response occurs.

So, to answer the question- anxiety is a physical stress reaction caused by our mental reaction to events in our lives. Possible ways to evaluate and treat/manage stress can be found at Anxiety treatment at Sadar Psychological and Sports Center.