What is Anxiety?- Written by Jayne Sensenig

Anxiety. You may have heard that word a lot recently, it seems to be somewhat of a buzz word and hot topic right now. So what is it exactly?

According to APA (American Psychological Association) Anxiety is “an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure”. Simply said, Anxiety is an emotion that produces physical changes.

Anxiety is an emotion.

Ok so blog over, moving on to the next thing on my Facebook feed right?!

Not so fast! There’s a lot to understand about emotions, particularly one like Anxiety. With any emotion there are usually physical changes; crying, sweating, loss of appetite, increased appetite, headaches and many many more! Think of it this way. An emotion is our brain’s way of reacting to some type of stimulus such as someone calling us a mean name, a loved one kissing us, a puppy peeing on the floor (I may be speaking of recent personal experience on that one). Our bodies then react to the emotion. You may feel a pang of hurt in your stomach when someone calls you a mean name, you may feel a sense of warmth and comfort after a kiss from a loved one, or you may jump up and yell when you notice the puppy peeing on the floor.

Stimulus—emotion—reaction

Kiss – loved—warm fuzzy feeling

There’s just one crucial part missing in this equation that makes it much more complicated. Our thoughts. Our thoughts dictate our emotions. Let me say that again. OUR THOUGHTS DICTATE OUR EMOTIONS. The stimulus that we experience is less important to the emotional outcome then our thoughts about that stimulus.

Take for instance the stimulus of the puppy peeing on the floor. When your puppy pees on the floor the first day you bring it home you may think “aw he isn’t used to it here yet and hasn’t learned that isn’t ok” so you gently scoop them up and take them outside to correct the behavior. Fast forward 2 months and the sweet, cute puppy pees on the floor; your reaction might be different right? This time the thoughts might sound like “ughhhh, again?” and you lead the dog outside saying “Bad Dog!”.

The stimulus is the same. The dog peed on the floor. But your reactions are different. Why? Because your thoughts are different.

Stimulus- THOUGHT- emotion- reaction

I know what your thinking, this is supposed to be about Anxiety, not a dog training. Ok follow me here, if our thoughts create emotion then our thoughts create Anxiety. Anxiety is not the problem, it’s a symptom of the problem.

Anxiety is a symptom. Sweaty hands, racing heart, shaking, rapid breathing, and any other physical reactions we characterize as anxiety are all symptoms. Those symptoms are created by thoughts and more specifically, by fearful thoughts.

Imagine your boss tells you they want to meet with you (Stimulus). Anxious thoughts might be something like “Oh no, I am in trouble. I am going to get fired. I messed something up. This is going to be bad” (Thoughts) which might be followed by feeling anxious (Emotion) and sweaty palms, increased heart rate and tense shoulders (reaction).

Stimulus- Thoughts- Emotion- Reaction

Boss asking for a meeting-  Fearful Thoughts- Anxious- increased heart rate

Often the discussion about Anxiety focuses on the physical reactions, the increased heart rate, sweaty palms, stomach aches. However, that does not address the real issue, which is fear. Fear drives anxiety. Fearful thoughts about the future create anxiety. You can wipe off sweaty hands, take deep breaths to calm a racing heart and rapid breathing but if the fearful thoughts do not subside those symptoms will come right back or will manifest in other ways.

Anxiety. What is it? Anxiety is a symptom of fearful thinking.

Stay tuned for an upcoming blog about how what to do with these fearful thoughts, your own and others.

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