Anxiety is a complicated condition and one that most people struggle to explain. It's not exactly something easily defined in the dictionary, and those that have never experienced anxiety may not really understand what it means to have anxiety.
Do You Have Anxiety?
If you think you might have anxiety, don't try to define it for yourself. Make sure you take my free 7-minute anxiety test to find out more about your anxiety and how to cure it.
Dictionary Meaning of Anxiety
The dictionary.com definition of anxiety is "distress or uneasiness of mind caused by fear of danger or misfortune." But this term is a drastic over-simplification. Anxiety can be considered "fear," but in many ways, fear is only a part of what it means to have anxiety.
Make sure you take my anxiety test to learn more about your anxiety. But keep in mind that anxiety is more than just fear, because:
- Anxiety is actually a reaction in your body.
- Many different conditions are known as "anxiety."
Let's start with the first part – anxiety is a reaction in your body. When you have anxiety, you don't simply have fear or think a scary thought. For example, if someone tells you a story of falling off a cliff and you say you're scared to fall off a cliff, that's not anxiety.
Anxiety is a reaction in your body to danger, known as the "fight or flight response." It's actually beneficial. It's a series of changes your body goes through when it thinks you're in danger, such as:
- Rapid heartbeat to make sure blood is moving in your body.
- Eye dilation to let in better light.
- Faster breathing to take in more oxygen for exertion.
- Processing of body sugars to provide extra energy.
- Sweating to ensure that your body will be kept from overheating.
- Blood movement to the areas of your body that would need it most if you were fighting/running, including your muscles.
There are far more changes than those, but they represent some of the feelings that those with anxiety have grown to know.
Technically your fight or flight system still isn't anxiety. It's a system in place to keep you safe from danger, and if you were face to face with a lion it would be extremely beneficial.
But the best way to define anxiety is "the malfunctioning of the fight or flight system." It's when you experience a fear response when you shouldn't because you're not face-to-face with danger. While some may consider a normal fear response to be anxiety, those that live with anxiety are those that feel like they're coming face to face with danger when they are not.
A Single Term With Many Meanings
Also, there is also more than one type of anxiety. That means that you can experience anxiety in many different ways, and the idea that it has a specific meaning is a false one. Those that feel anxiety all the time are said to have "generalized anxiety," since the anxiety is fairly persistent and recurring. However, there are other types of anxiety as well:
- Panic Attacks Panic attacks are severe bursts of physical changes related to anxiety that resemble a heart attack. They have a mental component, but they are almost entirely physical, despite what the word "panic" implies.
- Obsessions and Compulsions Obsessions are persistent thoughts that cause fear, followed by compulsions – behavioral modifications and rituals that reduce some of the anxiety you have over the recurring thoughts.
- Phobias Phobias are intense anxiety that is related to a specific event. Rather than general anxiety, where the anxiety is caused by multiple issues, phobias are fears of specific subjects that cause intense anxiety reactions, like a fear of spiders.
These are just a few of the many different types of anxiety, and all of them are still considered anxiety. Furthermore, it's possible to experience anxiety that is more physical, as well as anxiety that is more mental, for example:
- Mental Lots of recurring fears and negative thoughts that control a person's life, but without strong physical symptoms.
- Physical All of the above symptoms of the fight or flight system, but without any fearful thoughts. Almost like the person is living with a disease, rather than a mental health issue.
People can also experience some variation of the above, or experience some physical symptoms more than others.
Anxiety is Hard to Define
This is why defining anxiety is so difficult – because there are so many different issues that explain what anxiety truly is. Anyone that thinks anxiety is just fear is ignoring the very real reality of what having anxiety truly means. Even those without a disorder may experience anxiety, such as when you have anxiety over a test or a first date – you feel like you're experiencing danger, even though nothing dangerous is happening.
If you think you may have an anxiety disorder, make sure you take my free 7-minute anxiety test now. It will help you see what you can do to control your anxiety and what it means to cure this condition.
Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Mar 27, 2018.