Meaning 1: ‘Anxiety’ is a term commonly used to describe an emotion or feeling that results from worrying about something. When we are thinking worrisome thoughts, anxiety is the emotion that goes with them. Worrisome thoughts often begin with ‘what if’, and are usually focussed on some potential negative future event or situation.
It would be wrong to think of all anxiety as a really bad thing. A little bit of worry about the future can help us to be prepared, to assess risks and take action to avoid undesirable consequences. For example, I might pay a bill on time because I am worried about getting a fine or late penalty if I don’t. A little bit of ‘what if’ thinking can be useful when evaluating risks and making plans of action to avoid negative outcomes. In evolutionary terms, if humans had never worried about anything, they may not have survived, so it can be a useful survival tool. If it is over-used, it can cause problems, ranging in severity from mild to severe.
Meaning 2: Sometimes a person may experience what is known as an ‘anxiety attack’. These are also known as ‘panic attacks’ (although some people might argue that they are slightly different, usually that a panic attack is more severe, but essentially they are the same thing). An attack involves an episode of unpleasant symptoms, both physical and psychological, which can vary a lot, but are usually the same or similar to the body’s fear response. They can be brief or last a long time. They can be mild or moderate or severe in intensity. They may be one-off, or repeated, or ongoing. There can be many different causes and contributing factors, both physical and psychological. Basically, an anxiety attack is more than just worrying and feeling anxious, it is a nervous system response that seems like extreme fear or terror. I will go into more detail on these in later posts.
Meaning 3: Some people are diagnosed with what is termed an ‘anxiety disorder’, usually when they are experiencing ongoing anxiety attacks. This term tends to imply that the person has literally ‘worried themselves sick’. In some cases, anxiety disorders can result at least partly from excessive worrying, however the disorder can have other causes and contributing factors, both ‘physical’ and ‘psychological’. They can develop slowly over time, or suddenly after a traumatic event. It can be very confusing for someone who hasn’t been worrying much to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. It can also be confusing for the person’s family and friends who also assume that the person became ill from worrying too much. I believe the term ‘anxiety disorder’ is rather a misnomer and there are other, more useful names that could be used instead (more on this later).
The difference: Although anxiety the emotion and anxiety attacks and disorders can be closely related they are not the same. Every human being experiences anxiety (the emotion) sometimes. Even people who seem confident and fearless usually harbour some inner secret fears and worries. An anxiety attack is an exaggerated fear response, it does not feel normal. It causes a person to feel out of balance and distressed. Even more so when the attacks are ongoing and become a ‘disorder’. In this blog I will mainly be discussing anxiety attacks and anxiety disorders, although I will be including worry and anxiety as they relate to anxiety disorders.
To summarise, the word anxiety can mean:
- a normal emotion that accompanies worrying thoughts
- a distressing episode or ‘attack’ of exaggerated fear-like symptoms
- a distressing disorder that may or may not be caused by or associated with worrying