Anxiety is one of the psychological terms that, during the last few decades, has entered into general vocabulary. From our family and friends, from the news, from movies and television, the word “anxiety” surrounds us wherever we go: “I am very anxious”, “I can´t sleep because of this anxiety”, “this anxiety is killing me”. Indeed, some experts refer to the last few decades as the “Era of Anxiety”. But, what is anxiety exactly?
We define anxiety as the “unpleasant anticipation of a threat”. It is very similar to the concept of fear: “anguish caused by the presence of a danger”. But two aspects give anxiety all its complexity:
- The threat can be external (to be fired, an accident, a catastrophe) or internal (solitude, suffering, sadness).
- That it refers, always, to a threat perceived by the person. In the end, who can be the absolute judge of what is a real, unreal or irrelevant threat? What is unbearable, or valuable, for somebody can be insignificant for some else.
How does anxiety feel? Some experience it as a weight over their chest, a breathless feeling. For others, to be anxious is to feel the heart pumping heavily, the hands sweating and the legs shaking. Others describe it as constant worrying, as if their minds were out of control and looking for dangers where they aren’t any. For others, anxiety may even be experienced as restlessness. There are as many anxieties, therefore, as people, and every person experiences it in a particular way. But we shouldn’t forget a key factor: anxiety is necessary, and part of our existence as human beings. In a normal degree, it is necessary for survival. It keeps us alert when faced with dangers, it gives us strength in front of them, and it looks out for our wellbeing.
Animals feel fear. They live in the present, in the stimuli that surround them: a noise, a feeling of hunger, a smell. They can’t remember, they can’t think in the future. When a threat emerges, they feel afraid: fight or flight. When the threat disappears, their fear disappears with it. However, human beings are more complex. We don’t live only in the present: we live through language, which allows us to remember the past, to worry about the future and to imagine possibilities. Threats for humans are not confined to just present stimuli: they can also be imagined or remembered threats. That is anxiety. It is a fear beyond what is present, here and now. A fear of what happened and can happen again, a fear of what may be happening right now, a fear of what could happen in the future, a fear of what we could become. A language-mediated fear.
Anxiety is only problematic when is oversized. When it seeps into our daily life constantly and relentlessly, leaving us paralysed. When it hounds us for years, asphyxiating our wellbeing and leaving our bodies in perpetual tension, preventing us from resting. When we don’t understand the threat that is shouting to us. When it explodes in panic attacks, or obsessions. That is the moment to consult a psychologist. But let’s not think that anxiety is like a fever or an infection, that we should eradicate! Anxiety is like the red light in an emergency, that informs us that, whether we are aware of it or not, something is not okay in our life. And the psychologist can be our guide and partner in the search for a solution.
The good news? Anxiety is not the enemy, but a part of ourselves. In a sense, it shows us the way. When the danger that hounds us, big or small, disappears, we will find our growth as a person: a better knowledge of ourselves, wellbeing and self-esteem.