What is anxiety? The term anxiety refers to feelings of worry, nervousness, apprehension, or fear commonly experienced by people when faced with something they view as challenging – a test, speaking in public, performing in public, a job interview, divorce, layoff, or any number of other stress-inducing events.
Sometimes anxiety is characterized by vague, unsettling feelings of nervousness and apprehension, often with the person having no idea what he or she is anxious about.
An Anxiety Definition From the Medical Community
According to the anxiety definition in Mosby's Dictionary of Medicine, Nursing, and Health Professions, anxiety is the anticipation of impending danger and dread accompanied by restlessness, tension, rapid heartbeat, and rapid breathing that may or may not be associated with a certain event or situation.
While technically accurate, this anxiety definition fails to explain that anxiety is a normal, and possibly life-saving, reaction to danger. Imagine that you're walking down the street, alone at night. A couple of the street light bulbs need replacing, causing darkness to overtake the normally well-lit area. Suddenly you hear footsteps behind you – rapid footsteps getting closer by the second. Your heart begins to pound, your mind races with impulses about what to do – run or fight. In this case, your anxiety may save your life. Of course, the person running up behind you may be out for a late evening jog and pose no threat to you. But it's your body's fight or flight reaction to the sound of footsteps that could save your life if the runner meant you harm.
A less extreme example could involve a final exam or important project at work. As your anxiety builds around the test or project, it could cause you to work harder on the project or focus more on studying for the exam. In these and many other situations, anxiety is a good and normal thing. If you never felt anxious about doing well on your tests or having your project well received by the boss, you may not go very far in school or work. Further, if you took no heed to footsteps hurtling toward you on a lonely, dark street, you may not live to see another day – or at the very least – you may end up mugged and robbed of valuables.
What Is Anxiety, Really?
So, to understand the answer to the question, "What Is Anxiety?" you must understand that it's a normal, and beneficial, reaction to stress. Anxiety is an adaptive way to cope with the various stressors and challenges in the world. It's short-lived and doesn't have a dramatic effect on your life. However, when anxious feelings, like worry and fear, begin to interfere with daily life on a regular basis, seem unreasonable and excessive, or have no apparent association with any external stimuli or stresses, it can become an anxiety disorder and that's a whole other story.