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What is Anxiety?

Have you ever wondered what anxiety felt like?

Robin Marantz Henig, writing for The New York Times Magazine, has penned a great (but lengthy) piece about anxiety — that non-specific feeling of nervousness that, for some, can be completely debilitating.

Anxiety differs from social phobia or other kinds of fears, because it isn’t specific to particular situation (like speaking in front of crowds or going to a party). It can attack at any time, for any reason or no reason whatsoever. So while you or I may get butterflies in our stomach the first time before a big exam or presentation, someone with anxiety may have them virtually all of the time.

Anxiety is not fear, exactly, because fear is focused on something right in front of you, a real and objective danger. It is instead a kind of fear gone wild, a generalized sense of dread about something out there that seems menacing — but that in truth is not menacing, and may not even be out there. If you’re anxious, you find it difficult to talk yourself out of this foreboding; you become trapped in an endless loop of what-ifs.

“I was flesh bereft of spirit,” wrote the journalist Patricia Pearson in “A Brief History of Anxiety (Yours and Mine),” in a pitch-perfect description of this emotional morass, “a friable self, grotesque… I got an AIDS test. I had my moles checked. I grew suspicious of pains in my back. If I was nauseous, I worried about cancer and started reading up obsessively on symptoms. I lay in bed whenever I could, trying to shut up the clamor of terror with sleep.”

The clinical term for the most common kind of anxiety is generalized anxiety disorder. Other anxiety disorders include panic attacks, phobias, PTSD and OCD.

Although much of the article describes the research behind anxiety disorders, it provides an interesting glimpse into the insights researchers gained by following children as they matured — especially the ones with anxiety (called “high-reactive kids” in the one study):

Most of the high-reactive kids in Kagan’s study did well in adolescence, getting good grades, going to parties, making friends. Scratch the surface, though, and many of them — probably most of them — were buckets of nerves. “It’s only the high-reactives who say, ‘I’m tense in school,’ ‘I vomit before examinations,’ ‘If we’re going on a class trip to D.C., I can’t sleep the night before,’ ” Kagan told me. “They don’t like it, but they’ve accepted the fact that they’re just tense people.”

Studies find that people with constant levels of high anxiety stay on guard and “wired” for possible threats in their environment or in a situation, even when told or they know that the situation is non-threatening. A person with anxiety is always on edge, tense, and has a hard time calming their inner self. So while they may appear calm on the outside, on the inside they remain a bundle of nerves, easily set off, scared or startled.

For children who grapple with worry and nonspecific anxiety, there are effective interventions:

For the children who need help grappling with their fears, some psychologists try to intervene early, with programs that give worried children tools for quieting the scary thoughts in their heads. Kids are often taught the same skills that anxious adults are, a variation on cognitive behavior therapy, designed to stop the endless recursive loop of rumination, replacing it with a smart, rational interior voice. In a way, it’s teaching anxious people to do what non-anxious people do naturally.

And having a “high-reactive temperament” is actually often a positive, as long as it is overwhelming to the person:

People with a high-reactive temperament — as long as it doesn’t show itself as a clinical disorder — are generally conscientious and almost obsessively well-prepared. Worriers are likely to be the most thorough workers and the most attentive friends. Someone who worries about being late will plan to get to places early. Someone anxious about giving a public lecture will work harder to prepare for it. Test-taking anxiety can lead to better studying; fear of traveling can lead to careful mapping of transit routes.

Generalizations, to be sure, but interesting nonetheless in the sense of demonstrating how not every personality trait or even symptoms of a “disorder” are always a bad thing, when we experience them in small doses. Anxiety and worry can serve a purpose, as long as you can find a way to focus those feelings into action and behavior that helps your mind address the anxiety. Channeling such feelings can help you feel more productive as well.

It’s a good article about anxiety, but go grab a cup of your favorite beverage, because it’s going to take awhile to read!

Read the full article: Understanding the Anxious Mind

What is Anxiety?

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.

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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). What is Anxiety?. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 3, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 4 Oct 2009)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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