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p. 11. What is anxiety?free

  • Daniel Freeman
  •  and Jason Freeman


‘What is anxiety?’ asks what anxiety is; what it feels like; and what its purpose might be. A brief history of anxiety takes us from its Latin roots, through the increased interest in ‘nervous illnesses’ in the 18th and 19th centuries, to the German term ‘angst’ used by Sigmund Freud and Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. Scientists generally agree that anxiety is a basic emotion affecting our thoughts, our bodies, and our behaviour. Key theories are highlighted: Charles Darwin's research on expressive behaviours, Walter Cannon's ‘fight or flight’ theory, Peter Lang's ‘three systems’ model of anxiety, and the mental health professionals' definition of anxiety in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

You know those days when you’ve got the mean reds … the blues are because you’re getting fat or maybe it's been raining too long. You’re sad, that's all. But the mean reds are horrible. You’re afraid and you sweat like hell, but you don’t know what you’re afraid of. Except something bad is going to happen, only you don’t know what it is.

Holly Golightly in Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's

Anxiety doesn’t ever go away. There's not suddenly a sun-lit plateau where you’re never anxious about anything – it just takes different shapes and forms.

Michael Palin

Holly Golightly's ‘mean reds’ may be horrible, but they are also absolutely normal. No one goes through life without experiencing anxiety from time to time – perhaps before taking a flight, giving a speech, or meeting new people. And though that anxiety-free sun-lit plateau may sound appealing, it's probably just as well that we won’t reach it. As we’ll see, anxiety isn’t merely normal, it is often essential.

On the other hand, for large – and perhaps increasing – numbers of people, anxiety is a major problem. The poet W. H. Auden p. 2published The Age of Anxiety in 1947. That now looks more like a remarkable feat of prophecy than the comment on post-war society Auden intended. The main mental health survey in the United States, for example, indicated that 18% of adults had experienced an anxiety disorder of some type in the previous 12 months. This figure refers only to anxiety that is sufficiently severe to warrant a medical diagnosis. Even so, it suggests that approximately 40 million adults in the US alone are suffering from clinical levels of anxiety – an extraordinary statistic.

A still greater number of people are struggling with levels of anxiety that don’t meet the criteria for a full-blown disorder. The UK's Mental Health Foundation reported that 37% of adults felt more frightened and anxious than they had in the past. More than three-quarters of those surveyed stated that the world had become a more frightening place over the previous ten years. And almost one-third (29%) admitted that anxiety and fear had driven them to change the way they behaved, preventing them from doing things they wished they could have done.

At the other end of the scale, everyday anxiety is as natural – and beneficial – as any other emotion. We all know what it means to feel anxious; we have first-hand experience, sometimes on a regular basis. If we asked you to jot down five words to describe anxiety, doubtless you wouldn’t need long to ponder.

A (very) brief history of anxiety

The English word ‘anxiety’ has venerable roots. Like its European cognates angoisse (French), Angst (German), angoscia (Italian), and angustia (Spanish), anxiety originates from the ancient Greek angh, which can be found in the ancient Greek words meaning ‘to press tight’, ‘to strangle’, ‘to be weighed down with grief’, and ‘load’, ‘burden’, and ‘trouble’. It's easy to detect the echoes of these feelings in the generally unpleasant experience we call anxiety. Angh subsequently made its way into Latin terms such as angustus, ango, p. 3and anxietas, all of which carry connotations of narrowness, constriction, and discomfort – much like another Latin term that has become part of modern medical terminology: angina.

Ancient though the word ‘anxiety’ may be, it was rarely employed as a psychological or psychiatric concept before the late 19th century, and only became widespread over the course of the 20th century. Aubrey Lewis has noted that 3 academic articles on ‘anxiety’ were listed in Psychological Abstracts in 1927; 14 in 1931; 37 in 1950; and 220 in 1960.

Not that there's any evidence to suggest that the experience of anxiety (as opposed to the use of the term) was any less normal and widespread than it is today; it would be astounding if it were. Feelings of panic and fear, and the physical changes that often accompany them such as trembling, palpitations, and faster breathing, are regularly described in literary, religious, and medical writings throughout the centuries.

However, these sensations were seldom referred to as ‘anxiety’. Moreover, they were usually explained as the product of moral or religious failings, or of organic physical defects or illness. The 18th and 19th centuries saw a huge rise in interest in ‘nervous illnesses’, but the symptoms of what we would today describe as anxiety were regarded as essentially physical in origin. Scientific debate focused on the question of which particular physical problem was responsible.

For example, the eminent mid-19th-century French psychiatrist Bénédict Morel (1809–73) argued that symptoms of anxiety were triggered by disease in the nervous system. The influential Hungarian ear, nose, and throat specialist Maurice Krishaber (1836–83), on the other hand, believed that anxiety was caused by cardiovascular irregularities, a problem that could be rectified by the consumption of caffeine. (Given that caffeine is now known to increase feelings of anxiety, Krishaber's recommended remedy is p. 4rather ironic.) And Moritz Benedikt (1835–1920), a professor of neurology at the University of Vienna, attributed the dizziness often experienced in panic attacks to problems in the inner ear.

The meteoric ascent of the term ‘anxiety’ began only with the publication in 1895 of a ground-breaking paper by Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), the founder of psychoanalysis. Under the pithy title ‘On the Grounds for Detaching a Particular Syndrome from Neurasthenia under the Description “Anxiety Neurosis” ’, Freud argued that anxiety should be distinguished from other forms of nervous illness (or neurasthenia).

Freud, of course, wrote in German. James Strachey, who translated Freud's works into English, was acutely aware of the problems caused by rendering the German Angst as ‘anxiety’: ‘[Angst may] be translated by any one of half a dozen similarly common English words – fear, fright, alarm, and so on – and it is therefore quite unpractical to fix on some simple English term as its sole translation.’ The usage, however, stuck.

The central position that the term ‘anxiety’ holds in psychological and psychiatric thinking today is largely a legacy of Freud's work on the topic, though Freud's theories on the matter are now largely discredited, as we’ll see in Chapter 2. But other influences were at work too. One of these was the revival of interest in the mid-20th century in the work of the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813–55), and specifically his concept of Angst, an anguished dread triggered by the awareness both of our freedom to act and of our responsibility for those actions. Kierkegaard, and his thinking on Angst, was an important influence on prominent existentialist philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–80) and Martin Heidegger (1889–1976), though their idea of Angst was far removed from what psychologists today would define as anxiety.

Then there was the very visible epidemic of shell-shock caused by the First World War. Few indeed must have been the communities p. 5in the UK that did not include someone clearly suffering from severe psychological problems as a result of horrors endured during the conflict. (Today, these men would be diagnosed not with shell-shock but with post-traumatic stress disorder, which you can read more about in Chapter 10.)

Anxiety is an emotion

Theories concerning anxiety abound, but scientists agree that it is an emotion. Indeed, fear is usually regarded as one of the five basic emotions, alongside sadness, happiness, anger, and disgust. (As we’ll see in a moment, the terms ‘anxiety’ and ‘fear’ are generally used synonymously.) By basic, we mean the first to develop in humans, usually within the first six months after birth.

This is all well and good, but what exactly do we mean by the term ‘emotion’? The concept is a contested one, but there is general agreement that emotions are complex phenomena, typically affecting our thoughts, our bodies, and our behaviour. There is evidence that each of the basic emotions involves a distinct facial expression, and to some degree a different bodily (or physiological) reaction. When we become aware of one or more of these changes, we are feeling an emotion.

Current psychological thinking has coalesced around the idea that emotions are strong, conscious feelings triggered by our assessment – or appraisal – of a particular event or situation. That appraisal, which may be conscious or unconscious, determines which emotion we feel. For instance, if we sense success, we are happy. If we detect that we have been wronged or thwarted, we experience anger. And if we think that we’re in danger, we feel fear.

But why do we need emotions? Wouldn’t life be much more pleasant if we weren’t susceptible to fear, or sadness, or disgust? In fact, without them, our lives would almost certainly be a great p. 6deal shorter. Emotions help us survive, thrive, and pass on our genes. As Paul Ekman, a leading psychologist of emotions, puts it, they have ‘evolved through their adaptive value in dealing with fundamental life-tasks’. So, for example, the happiness our ancestors felt after developing a useful tool encouraged them to repeat the experience; their sadness when separated from friends and loved ones helped them preserve crucial social ties; and their anxiety helped ensure they didn’t end up as some wild animal's meal.

Psychologists define emotional states in terms of how long they last. Research suggests that initial physiological reactions – which include facial expressions – generally last just a few seconds. An emotion lasts anywhere from seconds to hours. If it goes on for longer, it's referred to as mood; and if we have a tendency to react in this way, it's part of our personality.

Emotions are so important to us that it's unsurprising that we are often extremely successful at decoding other people's feelings. For example, research by Rainer Banse and Klaus Scherer has shown that people are adept at recognizing emotions simply by listening to someone's tone of voice rather than what is actually said. (Banse and Scherer instructed actors to pronounce a nonsensical phrase, thus preventing participants from guessing the emotion from the meaning of the words used.)

Other studies have revealed that individuals are often able to decode emotions on the basis of touch. A team of researchers in the US separated participants into pairs, and seated each pair at a table divided by a black curtain. One of the pair then attempted to convey a series of emotions – anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, surprise, sympathy, embarrassment, love, envy, pride, and gratitude – purely by touching the other's arm. Those doing the touching tended to use similar techniques to communicate particular emotions: stroking to suggest love, for example, or trembling to indicate fear. And the participants guessing which p. 7emotions were being communicated were often remarkably successful in their judgements. So, if we don’t know how the people around us are feeling, we may simply need to pay a little more attention to the signals they are almost inevitably sending out.

Anxiety and evolution: fight or flight

If you’ve detected the theories of Charles Darwin in the account of emotion we’ve just given, you are right. Indeed, emotions are the subject of a fascinating study by Darwin, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Published in 1872, this book has long been overshadowed by Darwin's revolutionary On the Origins of Species (1859). But after decades of neglect, The Expression of Emotions has come to exert a powerful influence on scientific thinking.

Darwin sees emotions as primarily expressive behaviours: automatic, unconscious, and largely innate (rather than learned) physiological changes, facial expressions, and behaviours. What interests Darwin in particular is the range of actions and visible bodily changes that characterize each emotion. These actions and expressions both help the person experiencing the emotion and send signals to those around him or her. In the case of fear, Darwin notes:

the eyes and mouth are widely opened, and the eyebrows raised. The frightened man at first stands like a statue motionless and breathless, or crouches down as if instinctively to escape observation. The heart beats quickly and violently … The skin instantly becomes pale … [and cold] perspiration exudes from it … The hairs on the skin stand erect … the mouth becomes dry …

As the title of Darwin's book makes clear, he doesn’t regard emotions as a distinctly human attribute. Indeed, Darwin devotes considerable effort to highlighting the continuities (as well as p. 8differences) between the animal and human experience and expression of emotion. For example, he writes:

With all or almost all animals, even with birds, terror causes the body to tremble. … With respect to the involuntary bristling of the hair [typically caused by fear], we have good reason to believe that in the case of animals, this action … serves, together with certain voluntary movements, to make them appear terrible to their enemies; and as the same involuntary and voluntary actions are performed by animals nearly related to man, we are led to believe that man has retained through inheritance a relic system, now become useless.

1. An illustration of ‘terror’ from Charles Darwin's The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals

p. 9Equally controversially for the time, Darwin insisted that the way in which human beings expressed emotions was almost always the same, regardless of ethnicity.

So much for the expression of fear. What about anxiety's adaptive function? How exactly does it help us? The classic account was formulated in 1915 by a professor of physiology at Harvard, Walter Cannon (1871–1945). He coined the phrase ‘fight or flight’ to describe an animal's typical reaction to danger. Anxiety's purpose is to alert us to potential threat and to prepare us to react appropriately. And to send a signal to others that they should be on guard.

The three-systems theory of anxiety

Anxiety sets in motion a series of physiological changes, all designed to help us focus entirely on dealing with the sudden threat to our existence. These changes are associated with what is known as the autonomic nervous system (ANS), whose job is to oversee basic physiological processes – for example, breathing, temperature regulation, and blood pressure. The ANS comprises two complementary subsystems: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which prepares the body to respond to danger; and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which controls and counterbalances the frenzied activity of the SNS.

So, for example, the sympathetic nervous system elevates our heart rate, allowing blood to reach our muscles faster (by as much as 1,200% in some instances). Our pupils dilate, relaxing the lens and allowing more light to reach the eye. The digestive system is put on hold, resulting in reduced production of saliva – hence the dry mouth we often experience when we’re afraid. And new research suggests that the facial expression people typically assume when frightened – eyes wide open, nostrils flared, eyebrows raised – actually helps us see better and detect scents more efficiently: attributes that could make all the difference in p. 10dangerous situations. Without fear and anxiety, humans would surely have disappeared long ago. After all, creatures that cannot recognize danger and respond accordingly are well suited only to being someone else's prey, as the dodo would doubtless attest.

As we’ve seen, Darwin emphasized the way in which we express our emotions. But though this is clearly a crucial component, it doesn’t tell the whole story. There is more to emotions than the configuration our facial features assume, or the way we hold our body. This is what the psychologist Peter Lang was getting at when he formulated the ‘three-systems’ model of anxiety. According to Lang, anxiety manifests itself in three ways:


What we say and how we think: for example, worrying about a problem, or voicing fear or concern.


How we behave: avoiding certain situations, for instance, or being constantly on guard against trouble.


Physical changes: for example, elevated heart beat or faster breathing, and facial expression.

These three systems are only loosely interrelated. If we want to know whether someone is anxious, we can’t base our judgement simply on what they tell us about how they’re feeling; they may cover up their true emotions, or even be unaware of them. Similarly, the fact that someone engages in an activity doesn’t mean they’re not anxious about it (just as a person might avoid doing something for any number of reasons other than fear). And it's quite possible to be anxious without feeling as if your stomach is tied in knots or that your heart is about to pound its way through your chest.

Definitions of anxiety

Bearing in mind that there is still no single definition of anxiety, let's now look at a couple of helpful attempts. The first comes from the DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), a standard resource for mental health professionals p. 11compiled by the American Psychiatric Association. According to the DSM, anxiety is:

The apprehensive anticipation of future danger or misfortune accompanied by a feeling of dysphoria or somatic feelings of tension. The focus of anticipated danger may be internal or external.

And here's a slightly less technical definition of anxiety from the US psychologist David Barlow:

Anxiety is a future-oriented mood state in which one is ready or prepared to attempt to cope with upcoming negative events. … If one were to put anxiety into words, one might say, ‘That terrible event could happen again and I might not be able to deal with it, but I’ve got to be ready to try.’

Both definitions make the point that anxiety is an emotion (though the DSM uses the term ‘feeling’ and Barlow refers to it as a ‘mood state’). As we all know, anxiety is no fun; this is what the DSM means by ‘dysphoria’ (the psychological term for an unpleasant feeling). Our body may behave in unusual ways (stomach churning, eyes widening, heart racing) – hence the DSM's reference to ‘somatic’ feelings. And at the root of it all is the perception that we may be facing serious trouble.

A closely related but slightly different concept is stress. Stress is defined as what we feel when we believe we can’t cope with the demands facing us. It comprises two elements: a problem and a self-perception (specifically, that we’re not able to deal with the problem in question). Like anxiety, stress is rooted in the fight or flight system. It can trigger a range of emotional responses including, very often, anxiety.

You may also be wondering how anxiety differs from fear. In fact, the two terms are often used interchangeably, and we do so in this p. 12book. That said, some researchers do make a differentiation, and typically it revolves around the object of our emotion. Fear usually has a clear object – seeing a shark's fin while we’re swimming, perhaps, or a dangerous piece of driving from the car alongside us on the motorway – and it often functions as a sort of emergency reaction (being mildly frightened is almost a contradiction in terms). But things are generally much less clear-cut when it comes to anxiety. Instead of situations in which we know exactly what it is that's scaring us – and when our fear will soon disappear once the threat has passed – we may not have a clue why we feel anxious. As Holly Golightly put it in Breakfast at Tiffany's: ‘something bad is going to happen, only you don’t know what it is.’

Anxiety can often be a less intense feeling than fear. It can seem vague and amorphous – and for that very reason difficult to rid ourselves of. After all, if we don’t know what is making us anxious, it's difficult to know how to deal with the problem. Some experts have suggested that anxiety is the emotion we feel when we can’t, or don’t know how to, take action to deal with a threat. So a large dog charging towards us with its teeth bared is likely to prompt us to a fearful sprint; worries about dying are more likely to take the form of nagging anxiety than straightforward fear.

If anxiety is normal, how can we tell whether it's getting out of hand? At what point does ordinary, run-of-the-mill anxiety become a clinical problem that needs attention? Every case must be judged in its own context, but a mental health professional will consider:

whether the individual is becoming anxious inappropriately (their anxiety is like an overly sensitive car alarm);

whether the anxiety is based on an unrealistic or excessive perception of danger;

how long anxiety has been affecting the person;

p. 13 how distressing it is for the individual;

and the degree to which anxiety is interfering with the person's day-to-day life.

They’ll then try to match the person's experiences to the six types of anxiety disorder – the ones categorized as such by the main psychiatric diagnostic systems – that we describe in Chapters 5 to 10.

If you’re concerned about your own levels of anxiety, you’ll find self-assessment questionnaires for many specific disorders in the Appendix on pp. 124–132.