What is Anxiety?

What is anxiety? Is it all in your head, as some claim? Or is it a physical thing?

Anxiety is a physical response to a real or perceived danger. Suppose you are standing in an African savanna and you see a lion about to charge in your direction. The anxiety that you would experience in this situation would be a realistic response to a real danger. But anxiety also can be in response to perceived dangers. Suppose you are walking home from work one evening. While you leave work at dusk, it soon becomes dark. The darker it gets, the more anxiety you feel. Suppose someone jumps you, you think. Your heart races and your palms sweat. Anxiety also can be a response to an imagined danger, even if the danger you fear is without logic or exaggerated (as is often the case in Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.) Suppose you spent your morning scrubbing your pots and pans with cleaner. You have now decided that the cleaner you used is not only toxic, but has seeped into your skin and contaminated you. With panic, you realize that you must avoid your family for fear that you will contaminate them. The anxiety you experience is intense.

We, as human beings, have evolved to experience anxiety so that in dangerous situations, our bodies will react quickly. Here is how it works. When our brains perceive danger, several biological happenings occur. To supply our muscles with the energy necessary to bolt or go to war, glucose, proteins and fats charge out of our fat cells and race to the muscles that are gearing up to save us. To make sure this energy gets there in the leap of a lion, heart rate, blood pressure and breathing increase. Adrenaline is also released to give our fighting selves a herculean advantage. At the same time, digestion, tissue repair and sex drive slow down. Why? Because it doesn’t make sense to use our energy to digest an apple and some cheese if we may not be alive to reap the benefits. The brain figures first things first. To appreciate anything, we have to be alive. So let’s use our energy to ensure this outcome. So anxiety is like a Indian scout. It slaps us on the shoulders before we see the lion to tell us to get ready.

All this makes sense, right? If danger is coming at us, we want to be prepared. And after all, it’s not every day we have to fight lions.

But what if it is?

Chronic Stress

O.k., our bodies have evolved to respond to stress. But it is intense, acute stress, like the charging of a rhino, to which we are meant to respond, not stress that goes on and on like the Energizer Bunny.

Twenty first century living is stressful. If you are like most of us, you spend more of your time stressed than not. You stress over money, keeping your job, sending your kids to colleges that cost more and more every year, paying for football and cheerleading gear, hiding your receding hairline, covering your protruding stomach and praying that you will live to retirement. And your reward for all that stress? You get anxious, stay anxious and get sick. But before you throw up your hands in despair, take a deep breath. There are anxiety-fighting techniques that help greatly.

Short term anxiety can save our lives. Long term anxiety can make us sick. But no matter its length, the experience of anxiety is the same: a pit in the stomach, a racing heart, a fear of something and a desperate desire to run and hide. 

Before going on to discuss other effective treatments for anxiety, let’s look at the different types of anxiety.