About Anxiety

What is the Meaning of Anxiety?

Micah Abraham, BSc

Written by

Micah Abraham, BSc

Last updated October 10, 2020

What is the Meaning of Anxiety?

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 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 overly simplified. Anxiety can be considered "fear," but in many ways, fear is only a part of what it means to have anxiety.

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 do not simply have fear or think a scary thought. For example, if someone tells you a story of falling off a cliff and you say that you are scared to fall off a cliff, that is not anxiety.

Anxiety is a reaction in your body to danger, known as the "fight or flight response." It's actually of benefit to the body and a series of changes happen to the body when experiencing either response:

  • 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 the majority of sensations felt when experiencing anxiety.

Technically your fight or flight response is a system that is in place to keep you safe from danger. Abnormal triggering to the fight or flight response, places huge stress on the body and mind, especially when there is no physical danger.

A Single Term With Many Meanings

There is 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, and are almost entirely physical.
  • Obsessions and Compulsions Obsessions are persistent thoughts that cause fear, followed by compulsions – behavioral modifications and rituals that reduce some of the anxiety that happens with recurring thoughts.
  • Phobias Phobias are intense anxieties that are 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. People can also experience some variation of the above, or experience some physical symptoms more than others.

Questions? Comments?

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Where can I go to learn more about Jacobson’s relaxation technique and other similar methods?

– Anonymous patient


You can ask your doctor for a referral to a psychologist or other mental health professional who uses relaxation techniques to help patients. Not all psychologists or other mental health professionals are knowledgeable about these techniques, though. Therapists often add their own “twist” to the technqiues. Training varies by the type of technique that they use. Some people also buy CDs and DVDs on progressive muscle relaxation and allow the audio to guide them through the process.

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