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What is Anxiety?

Updated on May 27, 2014

What is Anxiety?

Anxiety is defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as "Painful or apprehensive uneasiness of mind usually over an impending or anticipated ill," and "An abnormal and overwhelming sense of apprehension and fear often marked by physiological signs (sweating, tension, and increased pulse)..."

If you suffer from anxiety or know someone who does, you are probably already familiar with the basics. If not, then perhaps you should become familiar. It is estimated by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) that approximately 18% of the population of the United States suffers from some type of anxiety disorder. That is nearly one in every five people. Chances are, you know someone who copes with this condition every single day.

Forms of Anxiety

Anxiety disorders are broken down into five different categories, each with specific symptoms:

  • Panic Disorder
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
  • Social Phobia

What is Panic Disorder?

People who suffer from panic disorder have what we call "panic attacks". These episodes are sudden attacks of fear that can last for minutes at a time. Generally when these panic attacks happen, it is caused by some nonexistent danger that is perceived by the sufferer. Although, sometimes a panic attack can be brought on by the fear of having a panic attack. For this reason, it can be a vicious cycle.

The physical symptoms of a panic attack can include: dizziness; sweating; a racing heartbeat; trouble breathing; chills; stomach pain; and/or chest pain. If an individual has had a panic attack previously, oftentimes they know when they are having a panic attack. However, if someone is having his or her very first panic attack, these symptoms can be extremely scary, and oftentimes the person will believe death is imminent.

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What is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder?

Obsessive-compulsive disorder causes its sufferers to repeatedly perform rituals or routines; and/or have intrusive, obsessive thoughts; and/or repeatedly check things (such as whether a door is really locked, whether the burner is really turned off, whether the alarm is really set). These behaviors lead to a disruption of normal life.

The obsession leads to the compulsive behavior. For instance, imagine that a person is extremely afraid of germs and bodily contamination. That obsession will likely lead to the compulsion to repeatedly wash his or her hands, or shower throughout the day. This is considered an anxiety disorder because the obsession creates anxiety in the sufferer's mind, and the performing of the compulsion helps ease that anxiety. It becomes very disruptive to the sufferer's life, having to constantly perform the compulsive act in order to alleviate the anxiety. Sometimes it is all they can do.

What is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?

People who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder have oftentimes been through a very emotionally or physically painful event which caused them to fear for their own safety, or the safety of a loved one. Years ago, war veterans used to refer to PTSD as "shell shock".

When a person is traumatized to this extent, post-traumatic stress disorder can develop. This may cause the person to feel fear and adrenaline in normal, everyday situations. Oftentimes the sufferer endures nightmares, flashbacks, and frightening daytime thoughts. Further, the person's self-protection mechanisms kick in, and he or she may avoid anything which might trigger a painful memory; experience extreme guilt; and become depressed and emotionally numb, withdrawing from his or her social circle, and avoiding activities which used to be enjoyable.

What is Generalized Anxiety Disorder?

Generalized anxiety disorder causes its sufferers to worry almost constantly, usually about mundane things which do not warrant this degree of worry. They may worry about money issues, even though they are financially stable. They may worry about marriage and family issues, even when everything seems perfectly fine within the home. They may worry about health issues which are either minor, or do not exist at the present time, often turning the GAD sufferers into hypochondriacs.

Sufferers of this type of anxiety often develop sleep problems, waking in the middle of the night to worry. The anxiety can manifest itself as physical symptoms, causing any number of issues, including: nausea; sweating; muscle tension and aches; trouble swallowing; headaches; extreme fatigue; lightheadedness; and hot flashes.

What is Social Phobia?

According to the NIMH, social phobia is "A strong fear of being judged by others and of being embarrassed. This fear can be so strong that it gets in the way of going to work or school or doing other everyday things."

People who suffer from social phobia often have an extremely hard time being around others. This means that they do not develop friendships well, nor do they enjoy social events. This can lead to extreme isolation, which in and of itself fuels the social phobia even further.

Medications for Anxiety:

  • Antidepressants (such as Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft, and Celexa)
  • Benzodiazepines (such as Klonopin, Xanax, Ativan, and Valium)
  • Beta-blockers (these are medications often used to treat high blood pressure)

Antidepressants (SSRIs)

SSRIs are Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors. These types of medications are often prescribed for anxiety, as well as for depression. Doctors generally do not like to prescribe benzodiazepines for a period longer than a few weeks. Therefore, they prescribe SSRI medications for an anxiety patient to take on a daily basis. These medications do seem to work for some people who struggle with anxiety, but not all.


Benzodiazepines are hands down the most effective medication for the treatment of anxiety. Unfortunately, they are also addictive and classified as a controlled substance. Further, the longer you use them, the less effective your dosage becomes, which leads many people to ask the doctor for higher dosages and/or more medication.

The difference between SSRIs and benzodiazepines is this: SSRI medication generally takes 2 - 6 weeks of daily dosages to see results. In the alternative, a benzodiazepine can have a person feeling better and far less anxious in as little as 15 - 30 minutes.


Beta-blockers are becoming more common as an off-label treatment for anxiety. Beta-blockers are generally used to treat high blood pressure and heart problems. Relative to anxiety, however, this type of medication blocks the effects of norepinephrine, a stress hormone. When you can effectively block norepinephrine, you may be able to control some of the symptoms associated with anxiety, such as: dizziness; sweating; rapid heart rate; trembling; and shaking.

Beta-blockers are oftentimes prescribed to people suffering from social phobia, because the medication can be taken right before stressful events, and can help to control the typical anxiety symptoms.

Ten Natural Remedies

  1. Valerian: An herbal supplement thought to act as a sedative with calming effects.
  2. Lemon Balm: A plant used since the Middle Ages to help control anxiety.
  3. Exercise: Physical activity can ease your symptoms significantly.
  4. Lavender: A German study showed lavender pills to be as effective against anxiety as the benzodiazepine Ativan.
  5. Omega-3 Fish Oils: Found in salmon, anchovies, sardines, and mussels.
  6. Meditation: Learning to be 'in the moment' rather than fearing the future.
  7. Chamomile: Available in tea or supplement form, chamomile binds to the same receptors in the brain as the benzodiazepine Valium.
  8. Passionflower: A sedative that can reduce the symptoms of anxiety as well as a prescription medication.
  9. Maintain Blood Sugar: If you keep your blood sugar from dropping by eating frequent, healthful snacks, you are less likely to have anxiety.
  10. Yoga Breathing: By practicing the type of yoga breathing called the '4-7-8 breath', you can reduce anxiety.


Therapy can also be helpful for anxiety sufferers. Many therapists use cognitive behavior therapy, and research has shown it to be effective in the treatment of anxiety disorders.

The difference between using medications or natural remedies to treat anxiety, and using a therapist is that medications and natural remedies only treat the symptoms of anxiety. Therapy may help you get to the bottom of what is actually causing your anxiety--the root of your problems. Therefore therapy is a very viable option that should be considered by anyone suffering from anxiety.


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    • LauraAmsel profile image

      Laura Amsel 4 years ago from Tucson, Arizona

      SEO IT!, agreed. I think that many people who don't suffer from anxiety just have no idea what it feels like, and are therefore... slightly less than compassionate. To put it nicely. (:

    • SEO IT! profile image

      Karla Whitmore 4 years ago from Tucson, AZ

      As it turns out, anxiety is a part of one diagnosis I received very recently, but I've dealt with the problem for quite a while (I'll be writing a hub about that one...). One of the worst things? Being told, "Calm down" followed by the eye roll or similar things with the same meaning. AAAAAUUUGH.