One estimate is that over 35 million Americans suffer from an anxiety disorder. Some speculate that this is because we live in such stressful times; that many of us live in a constant state of being overwhelmed. Regardless of the causes, anxiety is a common problem that brings people to the counseling center.
It might be helpful to look at what anxiety is and what it is not. To being with, it is important to distinguish between several words that are often used interchangeably. Fear, worry, and anxiety are not the same thing. It will also be helpful to understand what is normal and when fear and anxiety become pathological.
Let us begin with fear. Fear is a cognitive process, while anxiety is an emotional one. Fear can be defined as “the cognitive appraisal of danger.” There exist in us certain fears that are inhibitors of behavior that deter us from dangerous activity. One such fear/inhibitor is called the “visual cliff reflex.” This response which, is seen children and often persists into adulthood, consists of physiological responses (dizziness and immobility) as one approaches the edge of a cliff. These God-given fears of actual danger serve to protect us.
Anxiety is the emotional experience that accompanies fear. It has been defined as “a subjectively unpleasant emotional state.” The emotion of anxiety is accompanied by physiological sensations such as rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, sweating, muscle contractions, dizziness, and nausea among others. We experience anxiety on a range of levels from mild to severe and incapacitating. Anxiety can come upon us suddenly in response to an immediate threat, or it can build over time as we progressively encounter a threat.
Anxiety can be likened to pain. We experience an intense unpleasant emotion (anxiety) in response to a present danger and are hence motivated to take steps to reduce the danger and to prevent its reoccurrence. Anxiety (like pain) has a protective function as it can warn us to stop or take corrective action. It is possible to experience anxiety that is in response to a misperception or exaggerated danger. When this occurs, the anxiety becomes counterproductive and in worse cases pathological (more on this in a subsequent article).
I want to conclude by addressing the concept of worry. Worry (like fear) is a cognitive process. When we worry, we are involved in a thought process where we are excessively engaged in problem solving. Worry is future oriented. We are in some manner trying to understand, figure out, or know what will happen. Often in worry, we are trying to know something that cannot be known at the present time. Worry, a cognitive process, is accompanied by the emotion of anxiety. It is important to differentiate between the two. To stop feeling the anxiety when we are engaged in the worry thought process doesn’t work. We must stop the worry first (more on that later) for the anxiety to subside. The scripture passages that tell us “to be anxious for nothing” are in fact addressing worry.
In subsequent articles I will look at how anxiety becomes disordered and what can be done about worry.