When trying to describe what anxiety is, let’s begin with some definitions published in the scholarly world. I like to make reference to basic concepts as they remind me of what those terms actually mean. Without context, my description of anxiety would be subject to how I am feeling in a given moment which can be negative (most of the time). By reading the definitions, it helps me situate emotions in the right category.
Anxiety by the APA: “Anxiety is an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure. People with anxiety disorders usually have recurring intrusive thoughts or concerns. They may avoid certain situations out of worry. They may also have physical symptoms such as sweating, trembling, dizziness or a rapid heartbeat.”
Anxiety is a combination of negative thoughts (worries, concerns), intense emotions (fear, desperation), physical symptoms (trembling hands, fast breathing, heartburn) and maladaptive behaviors (avoidance, aggressiveness).
Anxiety by Beck and Clark: “Anxiety is a prolonged, complex emotional state that occurs when a person anticipates that some future situation, event, or circumstance may evolve a personally distressing, unpredictable, and uncontrollable threat to his or her vital interests”
Clark, D. A., & Beck, A. T. (2012). The anxiety and worry workbook the cognitive behavioral solution. Guilford.
The anxious emotional state persists long enough that it prevents you from responding in adaptive ways to the circumstances. The concern of an imminent and uncontrollable threat is most likely unfounded, not based in actual facts.
Anxiety by the DSM-5: “Anxiety Disorders include disorders that share features of excessive fear and anxiety and related behavioral disturbances. Fear is the emotional response to real or perceived imminent threat, whereas anxiety is anticipation to future threat.”
The DSM-5 taxonomy of Anxiety Disorders is as complex as the disorders themselves:
- Separation Anxiety Disorder
- Selective Mutism
- Specific Phobia
- Natural environment
- Fear of blood
- Fear of injections and transfusions
- Fear of other medical care
- Fear of injury
- Social Anxiety Disorder (Social Phobia)
- Panic Disorder
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder
- Substance/Medication-Induced Anxiety Disorder
- Anxiety Disorder Due to Another Medical Condition
- Other Specified Anxiety Disorder
- Unspecified Anxiety Disorder
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Anxiety disorders. In Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.)
Anxiety by Barlow, Durand and Stewart (my preferred book when teaching abnormal psychology): “Anxiety is a mood state characterized by strong negative emotion and bodily symptoms of tension in which an individual apprehensively anticipates future danger or misfortune.”
Barlow, D. H., Durand, V. M., & Stewart, S. H. (2009). Abnormal psychology: An integrative approach. Toronto: Nelson Education.
You can review the whole presentation on Anxiety and Obsessive Compulsive Disorders here:
Anxiety is incredibly complex. The thoughts, emotions, and behaviors making up the anxiety system can change over time depending on new circumstances. It is possible that individuals with anxiety who may have received therapy in the past, might need to rework their anxiety system later on with further therapy. Maladaptive core beliefs are usually the most difficult area to change, but with cognitive restructuring through CBT (or other forms of therapy), self-help work, and social and family support, such beliefs can be transformed into adaptive thoughts.
Some of us have a level of awareness about which negative core beliefs we hold, (e.g. I am worthless; I am stupid; nobody wants to be with me). As previously mentioned, even I tend to forget and need to remind myself about which ones are my own maladaptive thoughts, or I need to reassess how these thoughts are reappearing in my mind. Accurately recognizing such thoughts in their current state can significantly help you to determine what type of intervention or which resources you need.
Again, the best thing to do is to receive therapy from a qualified professional, but if you don’t have resources (lots of time and money) to spare, in the meantime, you can also start the homework and begin your own assessment of what your core maladaptive beliefs are.