What is Anxiety?

What is anxiety? People in our culture want to get the definition right. They want to know exactly what they have so they can do something about it. Many times people feel the sympathetic nervous response (the "fight or flight" response beginning with the hormone release from our adrenal glands that increase heart rate and breathing, and gives a burst of energy to our muscles: Biology of Fear) but don't call it anxiety. They call it stress or discomfort. That is fine! It doesn't matter what we call it, we can still do something about it!

Sometimes anxiety's what's and how's get internalized and sound very much like our own voice: "Something bad is going to happen." At these times, externalizing anxiety and thinking "What is anxiety?" can be very helpful. Naming it is the best way to externalize it. Connecting the scary thought with anxiety rather than reality can help you step back and change your relationship with it.

Many words describe the animal we call anxiety, you don't have to get the right word, just the one that is right for you. Everyone I speak to use these words in different ways. Whatever you use to describe your anxiety should feel close to your experience. There is no right definition.

Anxiety by Any Other Name is Still Anxiety

In the context of therapy, I let those consulting me relay their own definitions. These are how I would describe them for myself. But as I often use them interchangeably.


is being afraid of something. As in: I have a fear of death, fear of snakes, or fear of the dark. Fear can describe one’s sense that they feel vulnerable to something.


is a thought or perception that something is cause for alarm.


is a slight to moderate physical sensation with or without fearful thoughts. You can handle it at this point, but you are out of your comfort zone. You may be able to ignore it, but there is increased risk of fear the anxiety or panic may be coming. May opt out of plans or make adjustments to prevent anxiety.


can describe a stronger physical sensation (from release of cortisol and adrenalin), gastrointestinal involvement, increased breathing and heart rate, usually accompanied by intense and disturbing thoughts and a desperation to feel calm again. It is characterized by an intense worry that one can’t handle it or will go crazy with this feeling.


is an amplification of "anxiety." Increased physical sensations, accompanied by a feeling one is in imminent danger. There is restlessness or a need to move one’s body (the cortisol released by our adrenals gives us a boost of energy), by pacing, or rocking and a desperation for help, any help.


Some kids cannot relate to the words above, they can however relate to feeling uncomfortable even though they do not know why. They use this word.


This feeling is a mark of anxiety. The urgent desire to stop the feeling. If a person doesn't call what they feel anxiety, but can relate to feeling desperate, I go with this definition. It is desperation that is the common thread through anxiety that has disrupted life. The wanting to be anywhere other than where you are.

Out of Control

Yes, anxiety has us feeling out of control. This is a trick of the anxiety.


people often express anger when they are feeling anxious so this feeling should be explored. Addressing anger with a behavior plan while missing the underlying anxiety might not fix the problem. Anger comes out of the desperation to get out of a situation, used as a power tactic to get control when feeling out of control. It is extremely common for anxiety to be behind anger.


Physiologically they are synonymous but this has less stigma.

Did I miss one? What name do you give what you feel?

By Jodi Lobozzo Aman

I blog here: Heal Now and Forever Be In Peace
and here: Anxiety-Schmanxiety Blog,
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APA Reference
Lobozzo, J. (2012, April 4). What is Anxiety?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, June 25 from

Author: Jodi Lobozzo Aman, LCSW-R

Help Me
December, 10 2012 at 2:25 pm

Hello Jodi Aman,
First of all, thank you so much for helping people. You are truly a gem. I first felt panic or anxiety when I was about 10 years old. It came like a wave and I didnt understand what was happening. My first reaction was to run to the kitchen balcony and wanting to jump off to make the feeling go away. I chickened out and the feeling went away. I would get a depression for no reason at all every 5 or 6 years..that would last a couple of days or weeks. When I turned 43 or so it hit me real hard again and I went to the hospital where they put me on medication; I am now 55 and still on medication cause if I stop the feeling of depression, anxiety, and all that return. I dont know what else to do but to go back to the doctor...the medication seems less potent now....and I feel like the old depression is never far behind. If it wasnt for my wife I would have done something drastic to myself. My life is not worth much like this.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

December, 10 2012 at 2:47 pm

Dear Help,
I understand. A doctor can prescribe more medicine, but a counselor can really help with the symptoms. I suggest you find one in your area. I do counseling online if you are interested. I hope you find peace. And try to exercise!

5 Ways to Heal, 4 Ways to Heal, 1 Way to Heal | Heal Now and Forever
December, 3 2012 at 5:37 am

[...] Letting go of fear in all forms. (Anxiety, worry, desperation, worry, confusion, etc.) Being present. Knowing how you have control [...]

Anger is Anxiety's Evil Twin | Anxiety-Schmanxiety Blog
June, 20 2012 at 5:41 am

[...] addthis_config = {"data_track_clickback":false};Does Anxiety control us? Or do we control Anxiety?Anxiety comes in all shapes and sizes. Making us feel like we are at its mercy, it is one of Anxiety’s most powerful tactics. If we [...]

Dr Musli Ferati
April, 16 2012 at 3:22 am

As common emotional experience anxiety presents a great psycho-social problem for everybody and at any time and/or place.This trouble sense, on the other hand, leads to many diagnostic and therapeutic dilemmas at psychiatric professional staff, that should manage this most frequent psychiatric entity, as primary as well as secondary mental disorder. Essentially, it ought to understand that in core of its pathopsychology stands a pathological fear, that compromises welfare of anxious patient. No for psychiatric satisfaction, it should to know that anxiety imply also the positive implication of human daily functioning: with this emotional load we become conscious of many dangerous moments in our background.

Jack Yianitsas
April, 10 2012 at 10:35 am

For five years, I experienced the debilitating symptoms of fear, anxiety, and depression. Often these symptoms are diagnosed by physicians as panic attack disorder or anxiety disorder. In a constant state of anxiety and panic, I searched desperately for a way out of my forest of despair. Following what seemed to be an almost insurmountable degree of frustration and disappointment, I found the way to permanent recovery from my severe anxiety symptoms. Please visit for more information

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

April, 11 2012 at 5:44 am

Thanks for coming by! I am so glad you turned panic to peace. Indeed it is another testimony that we all can!

April, 4 2012 at 11:55 pm

My son's anxiety escalates or degrades to panic so rapidly I wonder if he must be living in a chronic state of worry & is always teetering on the edge of anxiety. :( We are working with an art therapist and a psychiatrist...
So glad you are writing this blog!!!!!!!

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

April, 5 2012 at 4:58 pm

Thanks Melody, I owe it to you! Does he see the bad instead of the good and does he not trust? This is such suffering, reeks such havoc on our lives. I am so sorry! I hope they provide some help. A par tens confidence also helps. You have to model confidence in him until he can imitate it.

(FL) Girl with a New Life
April, 4 2012 at 2:09 pm

Anxiety seems to run rampant on my husband's side of the family. So I am very happy to drop in from She Writes today. I hope to learn more.
PS I am now following you on twitter @TinaLaneBlogs.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

April, 5 2012 at 4:56 pm

Thanks for coming! Followed you back!

April, 4 2012 at 4:30 am

I certainly prefer these detailed definitions. I get very upset when it is all labeled anxiety when I know that what i feel is different one time from another. I know I'm not feeling the same each time it is called anxiety.
The ones I experience most are panic and nervousness although with panic I get paralyzed not restless.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Carol Johnson
April, 5 2012 at 2:45 pm

I feel paralyzed also when anxiety is really high. I feel so helpless and out of control. This article was very interesting and helpful! Thanks...

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

April, 5 2012 at 4:55 pm

Yes, the paralysis perpetuates it since you don't use the energy the sympathetic nervous system gives you. Move, do something, you might feel better.

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