What Actually Is Anxiety?

Anxiety is a difficult word, and not just because of how unpleasant it is to experience. It’s a difficult word because it has two different, albeit related, meanings. On one hand, anxiety is a feeling—just like happiness, sadness, fear or surprise—that arises as a reaction to something in the real world. When you’re buckling up for a driving test, for example, you’re likely to feel pangs of anxiety. It’s unpleasant, no doubt, but it’s also absolutely normal and nothing to be overly concerned about.

On top of that, however, anxiety is also a category of mental disorders that can cause grief, panic, paranoia, fear, isolation and—yes—even anxiety (the emotion) with little or no direct external trigger. Anxiety disorders are, unfortunately, among the most common in the world, which is why it’s important that we understand anxiety in all of its nasty forms.


The Most Common Types of Anxiety Disorder

Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) - A broad diagnosis defined by extreme, unfounded worries that impact the sufferer’s quality of life.

Panic Disorder - Sufferers will deal with panic attacks, extreme bouts of intense physical and mental distress that can be debilitating.

Social Anxiety Disorder - An intense fear or aversion to several (or all) social situations that impacts a person’s ability to engage with life.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) - Triggered by a traumatic event, PTSD can cause people to experience intense flashbacks and nightmares of their experiences. It’s also characterised by extreme irritability, explosive outbursts and a feeling of constantly being ‘on edge’.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) - OCD can cause a distressing mixture of obsessive and intrusive thoughts; compulsions that interfere with daily life; as well as intense feelings of irrational fear and paranoia associated with failing to fulfil those urges.


What Causes Anxiety?

Put simply, anxiety disorders are caused by the brain interpreting non-threatening situations as threats. Where normally, anxious feelings would result from stressful situations (the ‘fight or flight’ reflex), these disorders evoke the same intense feelings without the logical trigger of a stressful situation. Of course, when they don’t rely on an actual real-world trigger, the anxiety can occur anytime, anywhere—if not all the time.


Fighting Back

Even though anxiety disorders come in a number of terrible forms, and no two people will experience any form in the same way, there are still ways we can fight back and keep anxiety from dominating our lives. For one, we can talk about our thoughts (either with a professional or a trusted person) and map out our irrational beliefs, and in doing so, ground them in reality. Mindfulness is another useful tool in the fight against anxiety; it can help separate us from our thoughts and teach us how to acknowledge unpleasant ideas without internalising them. Finally, we can practise regular self-care, reinforcing a sense of self-worth within us and keeping anxiety from shattering our confidence.


Anxiety is tough. It’s scary, merciless and can be devastating. What’s worse, it’s tragically common. None of that means you have to let it beat YOU. With the right help and a strong attitude, you can keep anxiety from clouding your mind and overwhelming your life. Countless people stomp anxiety into the dirt every day, and there’s no reason why you can’t join them.

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