Anxiety, an emotion and a disorder.
Anxiety is a natural feeling that everyone experiences at some time, there is no one who is completely anxiety-free. People often get anxious before an important event, such as a final exam, sports final, premiere of a play or a first date. Anxiety is an emotion most of us feel in relation to things that are important to us and it can be very useful; it can get people to work harder, work better or improve concentration. Anxiety also benefits us in dangerous situations. It is anxiety that helps people run away from falling rocks or run from approaching cars.
We all have a built-in anxiety response that has evolved with humanity and helped us survive. The anxiety reaction manifests with a variety of symptoms, both emotional and physical. Common physical symptoms include, for example, accelerated heartbeat, shallow breathing, increased sweating and nausea. The anxiety reaction also affects our thoughts and when we experience symptoms of anxiety, thoughts are often characterised by great concern, irritability and difficulty in staying focused.
Although anxiety is primarily a natural feeling and can be very useful, it can also be a problem. When anxiety is excessive, it often arises or manifests itself in inappropriate situations and ceases to benefit us. Anxiety can become so great that it holds people back, prevents them from doing the things they want to do or causes them to feel extremely bad in situations that cause anxiety. When anxiety starts to have a significant impact on our daily life, an anxiety disorder may be present. A simple example of the difference between anxiety as a natural and even more beneficial feeling and then anxiety in an anxiety disorder would be anxiety for a final exam which causes a person to work hard, achieve better concentration and study hard before an exam but, on the other hand, anxiety for a final exam that becomes so great that a person fails to learn or focus and eventually decides to skip the exam.
You can think of the anxiety reaction like a smoke detector. A smoke detector is very useful and can save our life when there is a fire and it goes off (similar to an anxiety response that triggers in real danger). If the smoke detector goes off continuously and from the smallest trigger, e.g. when we light candles or make popcorn, then it is no longer useful (such as an anxiety reaction triggered in inappropriate situations or in excessive amounts). When the smoke detector behaves in this way, it is time to replace the battery or repair it. The same goes for the anxiety reaction. If people experience severe anxiety, very often experience anxiety or if anxiety holds them back in some way then they should seek the help from a professional.
The objective of an anxiety treatment is thus not to get rid of anxiety completely, but rather we want it to serve its purpose as this natural and useful feeling. The goal is to reduce it when it does not benefit us and learn to deal with it.
Anxiety as a disorder
If anxiety is beginning to have a major impact on your quality of life, e.g. if you skip doing the things you want to do because of anxiety, it is possible that an anxiety disorder is present. An anxiety disorder is really another way of saying that anxiety has become so great and inhibiting that an individual needs assistance to tackle it. There are many types of anxiety disorders, and they all have in common that individuals experience anxiety that holds them back in some situations. Anxiety can also occur with anxiety attacks, when many physical anxiety symptoms occur at the same time. A great deal of people experience anxiety attacks at some point in their life. It is important to know the symptoms of anxiety disorders and anxiety attacks in order to distinguish between anxiety as a natural feeling and anxiety as a problem or an anxiety disorder. This page contains information on some common anxiety disorders; general anxiety disorder, social anxiety and specific phobia as well as information about anxiety attacks. More detailed information on anxiety can be found on the Internet, for example on Kvíðameðferðarstöðin's website: www.kms.is.