What is anxiety?
Anxiety is an unpleasant feeling that we all experience at times. It is a word often used to describe when we feel 'uptight', 'irritable', 'nervous', 'tense', or 'wound up'. When we are anxious we normally experience a variety of uncomfortable physical sensations. These include:
As well as this, anxiety affects us mentally too. For example, when anxious, we often worry for large periods of time, so much so that our worry can feel out of control. These worries are often about a variety of issues and commonly our mind jumps quickly from one worry to another.
Anxiety also influences how we behave. For instance, when we feel anxious, we often avoid doing things that we want to because we are worried about how they will turn out. Although short experiences of anxiety are part and parcel of daily life, it becomes challenging when anxiety begins to follow people around and is a regular feature in their lives.
What causes anxiety?
Often we develop anxiety following a series of stressful life events. This is especially true if we experience many different pressures all at once. For example, if someone has work pressures, financial difficulties, and relationship problems, all at the same time, it is perhaps unsurprising that they become anxious. When thinking about it in this way, anxiety is often the result of feeling as though we cannot cope with the demands placed upon us.
In addition, people can learn to be anxious based on their life experiences. For example, if someone has faced workplace bullying in the past, they may be more likely to suffer anxiety when beginning a new job.
Some people may have a thinking style that lends itself to experiencing anxiety. For example, anxious people have a tendency to expect that the worst possible scenario will always occur. They also feel like they must constantly be on guard in case something bad happens. They believe that by thinking about all the things that could go wrong, they will be better prepared to cope if it happens. However thinking in these ways mean they are on regular alert and find it difficult to relax and 'switch off'.
We also experience anxiety because of its evolutionary benefits. Put another way, although anxiety is largely an unpleasant experience, it also has positive benefits that have been useful to humans over the centuries. For example, when we are under threat or feel in danger (e.g. hear a burglar), we automatically become anxious. As a result, our heart beats more quickly which supplies blood to our muscles (which helps us run away from or fight the burglar); we sweat (which cools us down during this process); and our breathing changes (which ensures oxygen is delivered to our muscles quickly � again preparing us for a quick response). When looking at anxiety in this way, you can quickly see how it can be very useful in certain situations.
It has also been suggested that anxiety has familial ties. In other words, if someone in your immediate family is an anxious person, there is an increased chance that you will have similar personality traits.
In reality it is likely that a combination of all these factors influence someone's anxiety levels. However, in some ways it is less important to know what causes anxiety, and more important to know what stops us overcoming it.
What keeps our anxiety going?
Some people have a style of thinking which lends itself to experiencing anxiety. For example, it appears that some people are more likely to overestimate the likelihood of bad things happening than others. It is easy to see how regularly presuming the worst in this way would make someone feel anxious. Unfortunately, when we do feel anxious, we become even less likely to think as clearly as we would like and a vicious cycle occurs.
Anxious people also sometimes believe that worrying has a protective function. More specifically, they believe that being on the 'look out' for danger can help them to recognise and avoid it. Unfortunately, when searching for danger in this way, they soon begin seeing potential danger in many relatively safe situations which of course makes them feel anxious. They may also believe that by considering everything that could go wrong; they will be better prepared to cope when it does. However, often these beliefs mean a lot of extra time is spent worrying than is necessary, as many of our worries never come true. Of course, the more time we spend worrying, the more anxious we feel.
Another way someone's thinking style can keep their anxiety going is because they become 'worried about worrying'. Here, people tend to worry that they are doing harm to themselves (e.g. going mad) by worrying so often (which is not the case) and a vicious cycle occurs. Similarly, people often worry about the physical symptoms they experience when they are anxious (e.g. breathlessness, rapid heart rate etc). Unfortunately, worrying about these symptoms (which are perfectly safe and natural bodily reactions), only makes them feel worse, again creating a vicious cycle of anxiety.
One other important factor that can keep people's anxiety going is that they often change their behaviour as a result of their anxiety. For example, they may avoid going to a party because they have spotted many potential 'dangers' (e.g. "what if no one likes me"). Similarly, they may put off completing an assignment because they worry about it being negatively evaluated. Unfortunately because people tend to use such avoidance strategies, they can never see that things would often go better than they thought and their anxiety remains as a result.
Not having enough free time to relax and do the things we enjoy we can also contribute to our higher anxiety levels. On the other hand, having too much free time can mean we have lots of opportunities to engage in worry and feel anxious.