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”. 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: (a) the threat can be external (being fired, an accident, a catastrophe) or internal (solitude, suffering, sadness), and (b) 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 someone else.
How does anxiety feel? Some experience it as a weight on 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 the face of them, and it looks out for our wellbeing.
Anxiety is only problematic when it 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.
"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."
Stress, anxiety, anguish?
Stress, anxiety and anguish are words that tend to be used indistinctly, and the borders between them may seem confusing. Do I suffer from anxiety or stress? Should I consult my psychologist for stress? Is this anguish or anxiety? Let’s clarify the terminology.
Stress is the exhaustion caused by an overload, such as an intense workday, the preparation for an exam or the hyperactive bustle of modern cities. When the overload disappears, the stress disappears. The businessman with the full agenda, that runs from office to office, that doesn’t have time to sleep, and that suffers strong headaches and back-pain, suffers from stress. After a good holiday, most of the stress should disappear. Shouldn’t I worry about stress then? It’s not so simple. Maybe you feel that stress is ruling your life, or you feel trapped in exhausting circumstances. In those cases, visiting a psychologist can be very helpful. It can help you cope with overloads in a better way, and to teach you new ways of handling stress.
Anxiety is not a synonym of stress. It is not caused by an overload, and it doesn’t disappear after resting or during the holidays easily. It could even increase. In many occasions, anxiety is healthy, and there is no need for an intervention: a new job, a move, or the beginning of a romantic relationship, tend to cause anxiety as a normal part of our life experience. Facing bereavement, anxiety is also a part of the normal healing process. But if anxiety is too intense, if it extends over time and paralyses our life, it is essential to consult a professional.
Anguish, also called panic attacks, is the highest peak of anxiety. The heart pumps, the hands sweat, something terrible (and maybe unknown) seems imminent, and life seems threatening. Luckily, the peak descends after some minutes, leaving us confused and, sometimes, still scared. In these situations, it is always important to consult a professional. Panic attacks can be very unpleasant, and coping with them badly can cause them to increase. If you see their frequency increasing, and occurring in more situations, consult your psychologist.