What Is Anxiety

Anxiety is hardwired into our brains. It is part of the body’s fight-or-flight response, which prepares us to act quickly in the face of danger. It is a normal response to uncertainty, trouble, or feeling unprepared. Anxiety affects our whole being, including how we feel, behave, and our physical symptoms. It feels like fear but while we know what we are frightened of, we often don’t know what we are anxious about. We all become anxious from time to time, and it becomes a problem when it interferes with life in the absence of real threat, or goes on too long after the danger has past. As well as feeling apprehensive and worried (possibly without knowing why), you may experience some of the following physical symptoms: Tense muscles, Trembling, Churning stomach, Nausea, Diarrhea, Headache, Backache, Heart palpitations, Numbness or Tingling in the arms, hands or legs, and/or Sweating/Flushing. However, if common everyday events bring on severe and persistent anxiety or panic that interferes with life, it may be described as an anxiety disorder.

It is important to realize whether one has normal anxiety or a disorder which often requires medical attention. In the following table, the two distinctions between normal anxiety and an anxiety disorder.

Normal anxiety Anxiety disorder
Occasional worry about circumstantial events, such as an exam or breakup, that may leave you upset. Constant, chronic, and unsubstantiated worry that causes significant distress, disturbs your social life, and interferes with classes and work.
Embarrassment or self-consciousness in the face of an uncomfortable social situation. Avoidance of common social situations for fear of being judged, embarrassed, or humiliated.
Random cases of “nerves” or jitters; dizziness or sweating over an exam, presentation, or other important event. Repeated, random panic attacks or persistent worry and anticipation of another panic attack and feelings of terror or impending doom.
Realistic fear of a threatening object, place, or situation. Irrational fear or avoidance of an object, place, or situation that poses little or no threat of danger.
Wanting to feel confident that you are healthy and living in a safe, hazard-free environment. Performing uncontrollable, repetitive actions, such as washing your hands repeatedly or checking things over and over.
Anxiety, sadness, or difficulty sleeping immediately following a traumatic event. Ongoing and recurring nightmares, flashbacks, or emotional numbing relating to a traumatic event in your life that occurred several months or years ago.


In worse cases, anxiety disorders may encompass different definitions depending the degree and severity of the situation. However, “Anxiety disorders” is a broad term; it encompasses six psychiatric (as in medical) disorders. Although the symptoms of each anxiety disorder vary in different people, they all provoke extreme fear or worry that interferes with a normal lifestyle.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD): A person feels anxious on most days, worrying about lots of different things, for a period of six months or more. Also, the person having this type is characterized with excessive, uncontrollable worry about everyday issues, including school, work, money, friends, and health.

Social Anxiety Disorder: Avoidance of everyday social situations due to extreme anxiety about being judged by others or about behaving in a way that might cause embarrassment or ridicule.

Panic Disorder: Severe attacks of terror, which may feel like you’re having a heart attack or going crazy, for no apparent reason.

Specific Phobias: Intense fear reaction that leads to avoiding an object, place, or situation such as riding in elevators or driving on bridges. Those with specific phobias typically recognize that the fear is irrational and inappropriate for the circumstance.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD): A person has ongoing unwanted/intrusive thoughts and fears that cause anxiety. Although the person may acknowledge these thoughts as silly, they often try to relieve their anxiety by carrying out certain behaviors or rituals. For example, a fear of germs and contamination can lead to constant washing of hands and clothes. In totality the person having this type can develop persistent, recurring thoughts (obsessions) that reflect exaggerated anxiety or fears and manifest as repetitive behaviors or rituals (compulsions); for example, the uncontrollable need to scrub hands repeatedly or the insistence on absolute neatness and order.

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): Avoidance, detachment, difficulty sleeping and concentrating, and reliving a traumatic event or experience several months or years after it has occurred.

Putting aside these worse cases, a good dose of anxiety is acceptable and. “Some degree of anxiety is normal and even necessary,” says Dr. Ann Epstein, a psychiatrist at Harvard-affiliated Cambridge Health Alliance and medical editor of the Harvard Special Health Report Coping with Anxiety and Stress. “Anxiety signals us that something is awry or might need our attention. However, you don’t want the response to become exaggerated or to dominate your life,” she says. Good coping mechanisms for stress and anxiety can help you stay healthy during turbulent times.