Understanding Anxiety

Anxiety may affect as many as 16.4% of the population in the U.S. If this number is correct, anxiety disorders become the most common mental health problem in the country.

What is anxiety? Think of it as an uncontrollable focus on a possible future threat, danger or other event that will produce a negative outcome.

The emotional aspect of anxiety. It produces a state of helplessness because you fear that you cannot predict, control or obtain your desired results. This is the affective or feeling part of anxiety. when you feel anxious, you also experience a physiological change.

The physical aspect of anxiety. The physical part is the activation of the brain circuits associated with engagement of the corticotrophin releasing factor (CRF). It physically feels like a state of readiness, vigilance, or hyper-awareness – perhaps to counteract the emotional feelings of helplessness.

Anxious apprehension (anxiety) can be understood as the negative mood in which you are preparing yourself for some terrible event in the future. There is a trigger but it may not be conscious or rational.

Chart of anxious apprehension

Trigger (a cue that evokes anxiety)           —–> leads to

Negative affect which is a sense of uncontrollability and lack of belief that you can influence the outcome —-> leads to

Attentional shift when you think about you (self-evaluation) and your emotional/physical responses  —> leads to

Intensified response  —–> leads to

More arousal,

            Cognitive biases (selective attention to threat ignoring more positive  information)

Hypervigilance (super-alertness), and

More negative affect     —– > leads to

Attempts to cope by Avoidance or Worrying

Hypervigilence also leads to poor performance which, of course, increases negative affect.

And there we have the miserable circle of anxious apprehension. You cannot control most cues (although you can certainly change some – like a bad boss) so we try to intervene someplace after the trigger, as soon as possible to shut down the rest of the cycle.


one source: the work of David Barlow, Ph.D., 2003

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One Response to “Understanding Anxiety”

  1. August 2nd, 2013 7:52 pm

    Good article! I have been reading about how some people are feeling better through mindfulness and meditation. I know when I feel anxious it really helps me to bring my mind into the present moment and breath.

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