What is anxiety?

Raychelle C. Lohmann, MS, LPC
Psychology Specialist

Anxiety is a constant and persistent emotion that may or may not be related to a known stressor. It can have a severe impact on day-to-day functioning and have serious adverse effects on personal relationships. Anxiety manifests itself in many ways, i.e., fear, panic, worry and avoidance and isolation (to name a few). It's an emotion that can take its victim from fully functioning to complete immobility.

Sadly, many Americans suffer with anxiety. Anxiety disorders affect about 40 million (18 percent) American adults age 18 years and older in a given year, causing them to be filled with intense emotional distress, fearfulness and uncertainty. Adults aren't the only ones affected by anxiety; so are teens. Approximately 8 percent of teens ages 13 to 18 years have an anxiety disorder, with symptoms commonly emerging around age 6. Unfortunately, only about 18 percent of these youths receive the mental health care they need.

Many people are not born with the skills that they need to work through anxiety, rather they have to be taught coping mechanisms and more importantly practice them. When people struggle with anxiety, it's important for them to explore new ways to think about and interact with their emotions. They can begin by focusing on living in the present moment, practicing meditative relaxation techniques and being mindful of their feelings, thoughts and emotions.

The good news: Anxiety is a manageable and treatable condition, and those affected can learn to overcome the debilitating emotion.

Anxiety is a reaction to stress that has both psychological and physical features. The feeling is thought to arise in the amygdala, a brain region that governs many intense emotional responses. As chemical messengers called neurotransmitters carry the impulse to the sympathetic nervous system, heart and breathing rates increase, muscles tense and blood flow is diverted from the abdominal organs to the brain. In the short term, anxiety prepares us to confront a crisis by putting the body on alert. But its physical effects can be counterproductive, causing light-headedness, nausea, diarrhea and frequent urination. And when it persists, anxiety can take a toll on mental and physical health.

As an everyday stimulus, anxiety—the "fight or flight" response—can be a good thing, prompting us to take extra precautions. But when anxiety persists in the absence of a need to fight or flee, it can not only interfere with our daily lives but also undermine our physical health. Evidence suggests that people with anxiety disorders are at greater risk for developing a number of chronic medical conditions. They may also have more severe symptoms and a greater risk of death when they become ill.

Dr. David A. Hanscom, MD
Spine Surgeon

Anxiety is a universal part of the human experience. In fact, from an evolutionary standpoint, the species that were the most hypervigilant were the most likely ones to live the longest and to produce offspring.

Anxiety is both normal and necessary—it will never disappear. It helps us to identify situations that would potentially endanger our survival, those which every human is programmed to avoid.

But in modern life, it's important to identify both the sources of your anxiety and your reaction to anxiety. Untreated, disruptive anxiety always gets worse; it will never get better on its own. Anxiety is highly treatable: if it’s acknowledged and treated properly, there is a strong chance it will decrease sharply.

Back in Control: A spine surgeon's roadmap out of chronic pain

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Back in Control: A spine surgeon's roadmap out of chronic pain

In Back in Control, Dr. Hanscom focuses on an aspect of chronic pain that the medical world has largely overlooked: you must calm your nervous system in order to get better. Beyond any other book about back pain, Back in Control reveals how to quiet a turbocharged central nervous system and make a full recovery. His life-changing system has helped hundreds of patients heal their pain. These patients’ stories, as well as his own, show that you can take charge of your care and set yourself on the road to a healthy, rich and full life.

Feeling anxious is a normal part of life. But sometimes tension, worries, and fear get so bad that they cause problems with everyday life. When this happens, you may have a disorder called anxiety.

Anxiety can make it hard to sleep and hard to work. It may also cause problems in your relationships with family and friends. But as with other medical problems, you can get treatment. You can recover and live your life normally again.

Anxiety can be something that occurs occasionally as a normal part of life. You may feel anxious about an upcoming test, relationships with friends at school, or wondering if you will make the soccer team. Anxiety that involves more than temporary worry or fear may be classified as an anxiety disorder. A person suffering from an anxiety disorder may feel that his or her anxiety is not going away and getting worse over time. It may also have an impact on daily functioning, such as schoolwork, relationships or extracurricular activities. There are several different anxiety disorders, which can be treated in a variety of ways.

Anxiety is characterized by a feeling of uneasiness, apprehension or tension in response to stressful situations and can be mild or intense enough to trigger panic. Brought on by alcohol, caffeine and certain drugs, as well as conditions like a heart problem or a lack of vitamins, some anxiety disorders manifest themselves in such conditions as obsessive compulsive disorder, in which a task like washing your hands becomes so habitual that you have to do it 40 times a day. Good for containing germs; bad for time management.

The great news? Knowing about a disorder like anxiety lets you do something about it. That can mean the difference between it being an annoyance that you can manage (like, say, peeling paint in your home) and a major life disturber (like a fire that destroys most of your house).

YOU: The Owner's Manual, Updated and Expanded Edition: An Insider's Guide to the Body that Will Make You Healthier and Younger

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.