What is Anxiety?

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What is Anxiety?

What is Anxiety?

Definition of Anxiety

Anxiety is the mind and body’s reaction to stressful, dangerous, or unfamiliar situations. It’s the sense of uneasiness, distress, or dread you feel before a significant event.  A certain level of anxiety helps us stay alert and aware, but for those suffering from an Anxiety Disorder, it feels far from ordinary – it can be completely debilitating.


Types of Anxiety Disorders

There are many anxiety-related disorders, and they are divided into three main categories:

1. Anxiety disorders: Anxiety disorders are characterized by a general feature of excessive fear (i.e., emotional response to a perceived or real threat) and/or anxiety (i.e., worrying about a future risk) and can have negative behavioral and psychological consequences.

2. Obsessive-compulsive and related disorders: Obsessive-compulsive and related disorders are characterized by obsessive, intrusive thoughts (e.g., continually worrying about staying clean, or about one’s body size) that trigger similar, compulsive behaviors (e.g., repeated hand-washing or excessive exercise). These behaviors are performed to alleviate the anxiety associated with obsessive thoughts.

3. Trauma- and stressor-related disorders: Trauma- and stressor-related anxiety disorders are related to the experience of trauma (e.g., unexpected death of a loved one, a car accident, or a violent incident like war or sexual assault) or stressor (e.g., divorce, beginning college, moving).

Your anxiety disorder may be a Specific Phobia if you have a persistent and excessive fear of a specific object or situation, such as flying, heights, animals, toilets, or seeing blood. Fear is cued by the presence or anticipation of the object/situation and exposure to the phobic stimulus results in an immediate fear response or panic attack. The fear is disproportionate to the actual danger posed by the object or situation. Commonly, adults with specific phobias will recognize that their anxiety is excessive or unreasonable.

Excessive fear of becoming embarrassed or humiliated in social situations, which often leads to significant avoidance behaviors may be an indicator of Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD).  Find out more about social anxiety disorder – especially if your fear of social situations lasts for more than six months.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is the most well-known trauma- and stressor-related disorder.  These are disorders that are related to the experience of trauma (e.g., unexpected death of a loved one, a car accident, combat, or a violent incident) or stressor (e.g., divorce, beginning college, moving).  This category also includes Acute Stress Disorder and Adjustment Disorder.  A full discussion of the symptoms and treatment of PTSD can be found here.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is characterized by excessive, uncontrollable worry over events and activities and potential adverse outcomes.  The anxiety and fear must cause significant distress or interfere with the individual’s daily life, occupational, academic, or social functioning to meet the diagnosis. The symptoms cannot be better accounted for by another mental disorder or be caused by substances, medications, or medical illness.  Find more information here about Generalized Anxiety Disorder.

Panic Disorder reflects the experience of sudden panic symptoms (generally out of the blue, without specific triggers) in combination with persistent, lingering worry that panic symptoms will return and fear of those panic symptoms.  Symptoms include recurrent expected or unexpected panic attacks that can last from a few minutes to up to an hour.  A list of symptoms, causes, treatments, and more details about Panic Attacks and Panic Disorder can be found here.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is one of several related disorders that share specific characteristics.  Repeated and persistent thoughts (“obsessions”) that typically cause distress and that an individual attempts to alleviate by repeatedly performing specific actions (“compulsions”). Examples of common obsessions include fearing that failing to do things in a particular way will result in harm to self or others, extreme anxiety about being dirty or contaminated by germs, concern about forgetting to do something meaningful that may result in adverse outcomes or obsessions around exactness or symmetry. Examples of common compulsions include checking (e.g., that the door is locked or for an error), counting or ordering (e.g., money or household items), and performing a mental action (e.g., praying).  Other disorders included excoriation (skin-picking), hoarding, body dysmorphic disorder, and trichotillomania (hair-pulling).

Other categories of anxiety disorders include Separation Anxiety Disorder, Selective Mutism, and Agoraphobia as well as diseases that are substance-induced or are a result of other medical conditions.


Tanja Jovanovic, P., Abigail Powers Lott, P., Vasiliki Michopoulos, P., Jennifer Stevens, P., Sanne van Rooij, P., Sierra Carter, P., Jessica Maples Keller, P., Yvonne Ogbonmwan, P. and Anaïs Stenson, P. (2019). What Is Anxiety & How To Treat It – Anxiety Definition. [online] Anxiety.org. Available at: https://www.anxiety.org/what-is-anxiety [Accessed 1 Sep. 2019].

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