What is Anxiety?


We hear words like anxiety, depression, mental illness, phobia, and other terms very often. But we frequently do not know exactly what they mean or how they really apply. This leads to misunderstanding and, sometimes, even bad advice. Beyond the Spiral is a book about dealing with anxiety. So the logical place to start is with the question: What is anxiety?


The American Psychological Association (APA) defines anxiety as “an emotion characterized by apprehension and somatic symptoms of tension in which an individual anticipates impending danger, catastrophe, or misfortune.” A simpler way to say it could be that it is a natural and normal response to stressful situations. It is normal to experience occasional feelings like these. When it becomes persistent or severe, that can be a sign of a problem.

Anxiety and Fear

Anxiety may sound a lot like fear and sometimes the terms get used interchangeably, but there is a difference. Going back to the APA, they explain the difference this way: “Anxiety is considered a future-oriented, long-acting response broadly focused on a diffuse threat, whereas fear is an appropriate, present-oriented, and short-lived response to a clearly identifiable and specific threat.”

Fear isn’t necessarily bad. In fact, fear can often protect us. It keeps us from trying to pet cobras or helps us know when not to cross the rickety-looking rope bridge. The National Institute of Mental Health reminds us that “occasional anxiety is a normal part of life.” But when it does not go away, it can worsen over time and become a disorder.

Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety disorders are a group of mental health conditions characterized by excessive and persistent feelings of anxiety, fear, and worry. These disorders can be classified into several types. Each type of disorder has its unique symptoms and treatment options.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder

When someone asks, “What is anxiety”, they are often talking about this. Generalized anxiety disorder is the most common type of disorder among teens and young adults. It is characterized by persistent and excessive worry about various aspects of daily life, such as academic performance, relationships, and future plans. There may be physical symptoms like headaches, muscle tension or fatigue.

Panic Disorder

A second type of anxiety disorder that can affect teenagers and young adults is panic disorder. Panic attacks are the most commonly associated symptom. These are intense episodes of fear and physical symptoms such as chest pain, shortness of breath, and dizziness. A specific situation could be the trigger, or it can occur for no readily apparent reason.

Social Anxiety Disorder

Social anxiety disorder is a type of disorder that causes intense fear and discomfort in social situations. Teens and young adults with this disorder may avoid social situations, feel self-conscious, or worry excessively about being judged or criticized by others.

Specific Phobias

The term phobia is very often misused in our society. Disagreement or a healthy fear is not a phobia. Phobias are an intense and irrational fear of a specific object or situation. Again, fear can keep us from doing dangerous things. When fear starts controlling our lives, that becomes a problem. People with phobias may go to great lengths to avoid the object or situation that triggers their fear.

The Good News

Anxiety disorders can be treated. Sometimes this can involve professional counseling or psychotherapy. It can often be reduced by lifestyle changes. This could be as simple as getting enough sleep, eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, and practicing relaxation techniques such as breathing exercises. It is also important to identify and avoid triggers that can worsen symptoms, such as caffeine, alcohol, and stressful situations. We cover those types of changes and triggers in Beyond the Spiral.

Whether you are asking for yourself, your child or a friend, we hope that this helps you be better equipped to answer the question “What is anxiety?” Knowing what it is and is not becomes the first step in helping identify the lies that it tells us and break free of them.