Anxiety itself is generally viewed as an emotion. This can become confusing because anxiety often involves worrisome thoughts.
In fact the American Psychological Association defines anxiety in the following way: “Anxiety is an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure.”
In this series of blogs we have defined anxiety as a physiological stress response. Feelings/emotions are made manifest in the body in the form of various physiological changes and physical sensations. But, as the above diagram depicts, these emotions/feelings can and do affect our thoughts.
Many anxious people may only be aware of their worried thoughts, but I would argue that there is always an accompanying physiological reaction, whether we are aware of it or not.
The vicious cycle of anxiety and worrisome thoughts
Just as the feeling of anxiety can lead to worrisome thoughts, worrisome thoughts can lead to feelings of anxiety. In fact, a vicious cycle often occurs in those prone to anxiety where the anxious feeling leads to worrisome thoughts which increase the anxious feelings, which increase the worrisome thoughts, etc. One can argue that anxiety usually involves two sides of the same coin with one side being the physical characteristics and the other side being the mental characteristics.
Difference between feelings/emotions and thoughts
It is important to recognize an important difference between feelings/emotions and thoughts.
We are able to change our thoughts directly. For example, you can think about your mother and then you can tell yourself to think about your father, and your thoughts will change.
This is not the case with feelings. You cannot just tell yourself to feel a certain way and expect it to happen. For example if you tell yourself to feel happy you would then either think about something you believe will lead you to feel happy, and/or do something that you believe will lead you to feel happy.
Therefore, with regards to anxiety, if we want to feel less anxious or to feel calm, we need to focus on what we are thinking or doing.
So, even though anxiety is technically an emotion, learning to decrease and manage our anxiety usually involves learning to change some of the ways we think. But, because anxiety also has a physiological component, biofeedback training aimed at reducing central nervous system and autonomic nervous system reactivity can also be helpful.
A functional EEG evaluation and a psychophysiological evaluation are two types of evaluations that can help to understand how their brain and body are contributing to symptoms of anxiety. These evaluations usually lead to recommendations aimed at relaxing the body and calming the brain/mind.