Much like 'depression', the term 'anxiety' is being used more frequently to describe a range of experiences. Rather than being ‘worried’, people tend to describe their experience as anxiety, without always knowing or understanding what that actually means.
Who Might Develop Anxiety?
In answering this question, it is important to first outline what we actually mean by the term ‘anxiety’. In terms of the everyday use of the word, anxiety generally means a collection of physical and psychological ‘symptoms’ that might cluster together in certain situations; these are outlined in the diagram further down the page. Diagnostically however, there are different types of anxiety that might be experienced in different ways. For example:
- Agoraphobia (an anxiety about, or avoidance of, places or situations from which escape might be difficult)
- Phobias (anxiety or fear provoked by a specific object or situation, often leading to avoidance)
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (characterised by obsessions and/or compulsions)
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (linked to a particular traumatic event or situation with a number of associated symptoms)
- Acute Stress Disorder (similar to PTSD, but over a shorter time period)
- Generalised Anxiety Disorder (persistent anxiety or worry experienced over time, and linked to anything and everything, rather than a single particular trigger)
Each of these anxiety disorders are categorised by diagnostic manuals (such as Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders version 5: American Psychiatric Association), which detail a number of presenting characteristics – or criteria – that must be met for the diagnosis to be made.
As we can see, different diagnoses may occur depending on the exact situation, whether it be linked to a specific trauma, or some other form of trigger. Anyone can experience high levels of anxiety, depending on the circumstances. Moreover, anxiety can actually be a positive thing if managed or contained, as will be discussed later.
Anyone can find themselves caught in a ‘vicious cycle of thinking’ that exacerbates anxiety; once started, it can quickly become self-reinforcing – anxiety creates anxiety. In addition, our tendency to want to avoid anxiety-inducing situations only reinforces it further. Conversely, confronting these uncomfortable situations that we may want to avoid might actually help us learn different ways of coping, or demonstrate that our ‘feared’ situation is something that we can, in fact, manage and ultimately conquer.
So What is Anxiety?
Hallam (1992 p 2) offers a number of characteristics of anxiety:
- An unpleasant, subjective sensation, varying from ‘tension’ to ‘terror’
- An awareness of imminent danger or harm, whether or not its sources can be specified
- An experience of bodily sensations associated particularly with the activation of the autonomic nervous system
- A strong urge to flee to a place of safety
- A lack of control over fine motor movements
- Thoughts of a worrying or unpleasant nature over which there is little control
- An inability to think clearly or act in a coordinated manner, especially in new, conflicting or threatening situations
(Hallam, R (1992) Counselling for Anxiety Problems. London: Sage)
An important point to stress is that some degree of anxiety can actually be really helpful: it can focus, motivate and enable us to undertake a particular task, such as an examination or piece of coursework, or perform in other ways. Many top athletes would state that anxiety and stress are critical to their high-level performance and that, without them, they would not achieve their targets. In that sense, anxiety is something that, with practice, we can utilise and harness to help us progress. The problem is, however, that prolonged or generalised anxiety can be very difficult to manage and can, over time, bring serious detriment to our overall mental health and functioning.
Characteristics of Anxiety
There are a many different forms of anxiety, each with their own distinguishing set of characteristics. While there is a diagnosis of ‘Generalised Anxiety Disorder’, there are also a number of other types of anxiety, such as social anxiety, health anxiety (hypochondria), Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), and many others. If you are struggling with anxiety, and believe it to be causing problems in your life, it is important that you speak with your General Practitioner (GP) or a counsellor to understand it more and get the right support.
In general terms, however, we might consider a number of experiences that could indicate whether anxiety is at work; these can be split into physical and psychological factors. In addition, a particularly intense ‘concentration’ of these feelings might be described as a ‘panic attack’.
What Can I Do?
There are a number of self-help strategies we can use to support ourselves with anxiety. Additionally, the information across this website relating to depression can also be extremely helpful for anxiety.
Things to use in the moment when anxiety strikes:
Things to implement in your life to help you cope with anxiety better in the future: