The Psych Central Report

Anxiety, Fear, Worry, and Other Scary Words

By Rapunzel
January/February 2006

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Stress (or even mild anxiety, according to some) can be a good thing as long as it is serving a useful purpose such as warning you or motivating you to take action when you are in danger or something needs to be done. You can often identify good stress because the concern is legitimate, and you are able to do something about the situation, and you are taking action or at least making a plan to determine what might help. But when anxiety and worry immobilize you instead, they can start to interfere with your ability to function and live your life. That is where it becomes a problem.

Anxiety tends to be immobilizing. At its most severe, anxiety can keep people prisoners in their own homes (agoraphobia), make them slaves to rituals and compulsions that they wish they didn’t have to perform (obsessive-compulsive disorder), cause them to feel like they are in physical danger or even about to die (panic attacks), not allow people to function in social situations (social anxiety), or to tolerate certain conditions or objects (specific phobias). Some anxiety sufferers experience constant fear and worry with no particular cause (generalized anxiety). Anxiety can be the result of traumatic experience (post traumatic stress disorder and acute stress disorder) or it may be more difficult to pin it down to anything specific. Anxiety can be an underlying component in other disorders such as depression and personality disorders.

If you have anxiety, have you noticed how hard it is to make decisions? The more important the decision, the harder it is to decide. Even little decisions like what to order for lunch can be difficult. How is that related to anxiety? Think about why you might agonize over the decision, or what the consequences might be if you made the wrong decision.

In dysfunctional families, anxiety is used to control closeness within the family. Whenever a family member gets too distant or too close to one or more other family members, someone gets uncomfortable to the point of anxiety and does something about it, whether it is to sever ties or to destroy the boundaries between one person and another (enmeshment) or maybe something somewhere in between. In such a family, the stakes are high, and making a decision that isn’t acceptable to someone in the family could result in loss of approval and support, or in loss of independence and autonomy. Some family members give up making decisions and turn it over to someone else. No wonder it is difficult to make a decision!

What else are people anxious about? The theory of existentialism deals with anxiety a lot. Rollo May defines anxiety as “apprehension caused by a threat to the existence of one’s personality, the awareness that one can be destroyed, physically or psychologically, and become nothing.” Existential theorists believe that people tend to avoid certain things, all related to angst, dread, or anxiety:

  • Taking responsibility for their actions.
  • Recognizing that they have choices.
  • Anxiety and fear itself.
  • Intimacy.
  • Awareness of being alone.
  • Awareness that life is finite.

How might you be avoiding any of these things? When you can recognize your fear and face the thing that you have been dreading, it no longer has the power over you that it once did.

Cognitive-behavioral theory offers yet another approach to anxiety. It is simply that our thoughts make us anxious. Thoughts, feelings, and behavior all form a triangle, each affecting the other two. When you change your thoughts, you will feel and act differently. The same goes for changing your feelings (you will behave and think differently) or your actions (you will think and feel differently).

Various contributors to cognitive therapy have identified certain cognitive errors or distortions, or irrational beliefs (these are basically the same concept). By identifying the distortions or mistakes in your thinking process, you can combat anxiety by recognizing that what you are afraid of is unlikely or not really that bad. See the links below for places to find lists of these distortions or errors, which you can compare with your own thinking processes. Note that they are common cognitive errors, and everyone thinks this way at one time or another. For more ideas about working on anxiety with cognitive methods, see The Feeling Good Handbook, by David D. Burns.

Anxiety is unpleasant and can really interfere with your life, but you don’t have to let it take control. Understanding what anxiety is, where it comes from, and what you can do about it will help you to stay in control of your life. These are just a few ways to understand and deal with anxiety. If you feel that anxiety is a significant problem for you, professional support may be needed.

For additional information:

Last updated: 4 Feb 2006
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 4 Feb 2006
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