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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