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What is Anxiety?

Anxiety is a general term for several disorders that cause nervousness, fear, apprehension, and worrying.

These disorders affect how we feel and behave, and they can manifest real physical symptoms. Mild anxiety is vague and unsettling, while severe anxiety can be extremely debilitating, having a serious impact on daily life.

People often experience a general state of worry or fear before confronting something challenging such as a test, examination, recital, or interview. These feelings are easily justified and considered normal. Anxiety is considered a problem when symptoms interfere with a person’s ability to sleep or otherwise function. Generally speaking, anxiety occurs when a reaction is out of proportion with what might be normally expected in a situation.

Why is it important to learn about anxiety?

Most people do not recognize their anxiety for what it is, and instead think there is something “wrong” with them. Some people are preoccupied with the physical symptoms of anxiety (e.g., stomach aches, increased heart rate, shortness of breath, etc.). Others think they are weird, weak, or even going crazy! Unfortunately, these thoughts only make people feel even more anxious and self-conscious.

Therefore, the first step to successfully managing anxiety is to learn to understand and recognize it. Self-awareness is essential.

Myth: Reading, thinking, and learning about anxiety will make you even more anxious.

Fact: If you do not know what you are dealing with, how do you manage it? Having accurate information about anxiety can reduce confusion, fear, and shame. Anxiety is a common and normal experience, and it can be managed successfully.

  1. Anxiety is normal. Everyone experiences anxiety at times. For example, it is normal to feel anxious when on a roller coaster, or before a job interview.
  2. Anxiety is adaptive. It is a system in our body that helps us to deal with real danger (for example, anxiety allows us to jump out of the way of a speeding car) or to perform at our best (for example, it motivates us to prepare for a big presentation). When you experience anxiety, your body’s “fight-flight-freeze” response (also called the “adrenaline response”) is triggered. This response prepares your body to defend itself.

We experience anxiety when we perceive or think that we are in danger. This response is great when there is an actual danger (such as encountering a bear), but becomes a problem when the “perceived danger” is not actually dangerous (giving a talk, seeing a dog).


Our body’s fight-flight-freeze response can be activated when there is a real danger, such as coming across a black bear when hiking in the woods. In this case, you may flee (e.g., run away from the bear), freeze (e.g., stay still until the bear passes), or fight (e.g., yell and wave your arms to appear big and scary).

But this response can also happen when something simply feels dangerous, but really isn’t, such as being interviewed for a job. For example, you may feel jittery, on edge, or uncomfortable. You may snap at people (fight) or have a hard time thinking clearly (freeze). These feelings can become overwhelming enough that make you want to avoid doing the interview (flight). Many people stop doing things or going places that make them feel anxious.

  1. Anxiety is not dangerous. Although anxiety may feel uncomfortable, it is not dangerous or harmful to you. Remember, all the sensations you feel when you are anxious are there to protect you from danger, not hurt you.
  2. Anxiety does not last forever. When you are anxious, you may feel like the anxiety is going to last forever. But anxiety is temporary and will eventually decrease.
  3. Anxiety is mostly anonymous. Most people (except those close to you) cannot tell when you are anxious

What happens to your body when you are anxious?

Anxiety can cause many sensations in your body as it prepares for danger. These sensations are called the “alarm reaction”, which takes place when the body’s natural Alarm System (the “fight-flight-freeze” response) has been activated.

Rapid heartbeat and rapid breathing – When your body is preparing itself for action, it makes sure enough blood and oxygen is being circulated to your major muscle groups and essential organs, allowing you to run away or fight off danger.

Sweating – Sweating cools the body. It also makes the skin more slippery and difficult for an attacking animal or person to grab hold of you.

Nausea and stomach upset – When faced with danger, the body shuts down systems/processes that are not needed for survival; that way, it can direct energy to functions that are critical for survival. Digestion is one of the processes that is not needed at times of danger. Because of this, anxiety might lead to feelings of stomach upset, nausea, or diarrhea.

Feeling dizzy or lightheaded – Because our blood and oxygen goes to major muscle groups when we are in danger, we breathe much faster in order to move oxygen toward those muscles. However, this response can cause hyperventilation (too much oxygen from breathing very rapidly to prepare the body for action), which can make you feel dizzy or lightheaded. Also, since most of your blood and oxygen is going to your arms and legs (for “fight or flight”), there is a slight decrease of blood to the brain, which can also make you dizzy. Don’t worry though: the slight decrease in blood flow to the brain is not dangerous at all.

Tight or painful chest – Your muscles tense up as your body prepares for danger. So your chest may feel tight or painful when you take in large breaths while those chest muscles are tense.

Numbness and tingling sensations – Hyperventilation (taking in too much oxygen) can also cause numbness and tingling sensations. The tingling sensations can also be related to the fact that the hairs on our bodies often stand up when faced with danger to increase our sensitivity to touch or movement. Finally, fingers and toes may also feel numb/tingly as blood flows away from places where it is not needed (like our fingers) and towards major muscle groups that are needed (like our arms).

Unreality or bright vision – When responding to danger, our pupils dilate to let in more light and to make sure that we can see clearly enough. This reaction makes our environment look brighter or fuzzier, and sometimes less real.

Heavy legs – As the legs prepare for action (fight or flight), increased muscle tension, as well as increased blood flow to those muscles, can cause the sensation of heavy legs.

Choking sensations – Increased muscle tension around the neck or rapid breathing dries out the throat, which may make you feel like you are choking.

Hot and cold flashes – These sensations may be related to sweating and constriction of blood vessels in the upper skin layer. This constriction also helps to reduce blood loss if you are injured.

How Anxiety Works

Anxiety does not only affect your body, it also affects your thoughts and behaviours. Therefore, there are three parts to anxiety: physical symptoms (how our body responds), thoughts (what we say to ourselves), and behaviours (what we do, or our actions). Learning to recognize these signs of anxiety can help you to be less afraid of it.


e.g., What if I forget what I want to say during the presentation?

Behaviours e.g., find an excuse to get out of it

Physical Symptoms

e.g., stomach ache, cold sweat, heart racing

When Does Anxiety Become a Problem?

  1. Anxiety is a problem when your body reacts as if there is danger when there is no real danger. It’s like having an overly senstive smoke alarm system in your body!
  2. Anxiety problems are common. One in four adults will have an anxiety disorder in their lifetime.

Anxiety is like a smoke alarm system:

A smoke alarm can help to protect us when there is an actual fire, but when a smoke alarm is too sensitive and goes off when there isn’t really a fire (e.g., burning toast in toaster), it is rather annoying.

Like a smoke alarm, anxiety is helpful and adaptive when it works right. But, if it goes off when there is no real danger, it is not only scary, it is also very exhausting.

However, we do not want to get rid of the alarm (or eliminate anxiety) because it protects us from danger. We want to fix it (i.e., bring the anxiety down to a more manageable level) so it works properly for us.

Recognizing Anxiety

Recognizing the physical symptoms of anxiety

You can learn to identify the physical signs of anxiety by asking yourself: “What happens when I’m anxious? Where do I feel the anxiety in my body?” For example, when you feel anxious, you may get butterflies in your stomach, sweat a lot, breathe heavily, and feel dizzy or lightheaded.

Remember: If you often experience many uncomfortable physical symptoms, but doctors cannot find anything wrong with you physically, you may have problems with anxiety. You are definitely not “going crazy”.

Although these symptoms may be uncomfortable, they are not harmful.

Recognizing anxious thoughts

Anxiety also affects how we think. Anxious thoughts typically involve a fear of something bad happening in the future – the future can be the next 5 seconds, 5 minutes or 5 years. See Realistic Thinking for helpful tips on how to identify and challenge your anxious thoughts.

Recognizing anxious behaviours

Anxiety can make us feel very uncomfortable, and it can make us believe that we are in danger, so it is no wonder that you may feel a strong urge to escape or avoid situations/activities/people that make you anxious. For example, if you are scared of dogs, you would probably avoid going to places where you may encounter a dog (e.g., a dog park).

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