What is Anxiety?

Anxiety is an emotion that’s best described as a prolonged feeling of uneasiness, apprehension or nervousness about potentially threatening events that haven’t happened yet. It’s triggered by objects, people, or modes of thought that suggest the emergence of a physical or social threat. Examples might include preparing for a public speech, hearing a tornado warning, or seeing a bear’s footprint while hiking. These events each foretell an uncertain, unavoidable, or uncontrollable future threat.

Much like pain or fear, anxiety is an unpleasant warning system that tells us to avoid danger. However, unlike these other sensations, it activates well in advance of any real threat, utilizing the imagination and memory to simulate worst case scenarios. Anxiety also causes our cognitive capacities to change. For example, we’ll start scanning the environment for further signs of danger, and interpret stimuli in threatening ways. Thus, anxiety’s fundamental function is to direct thought, behavior and cognition in ways that increase the likelihood of the early detection of danger.

Anxiety and Fear

Anxiety and fear are distinct emotions with different causes and effects. Anxiety is evoked by signs of potential danger, leading one to exhibit increased vigilance and precautionary behavior. Fear is produced when we are faced by an immediate, observable threat. It triggers an instinctive flee, fight, or freeze response.

State and Trait Anxiety

Most psychology textbooks separate the emotion into two parts. State anxiety simply refers to one’s current anxious feelings. Trait anxiety is an affective personality trait, defined as relatively stable individual differences in anxiety proneness. About 30% of population variance in trait anxiety is described by genetic factors, with the remainder shaped in development.

Traumatic experiences can serve to increase trait anxiety during a person’s life. These experiences form `danger schemas’ in the brain, which are filled with memories, beliefs, and knowledge related to sources of the trauma. Anxiety resurfaces when stimuli are detected that relate to what is in the schema.

Anxiety is probably the most important emotion in our affective repertoire. Like fear, it functions to warn of impending danger; but unlike fear, it remains with us as a constant reminder of the threats we are likely to face. Like all products of evolution, anxiety isn’t a perfect construct.

Those with high trait anxiety are tormented by unpleasant feelings that distort the way they view the world. This species-wide variance in our proneness to anxiety could potentially act as a buffer against a deteriorating environment. Indeed, anxiety helps individuals to learn about threats in their environment, and motivates behavior that may prove vital during times of adversity.

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