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Definition: anxiety from Dictionary of Psychological Testing, Assessment and Treatment

The term is usually used in the lay sense of the word. Namely, a feeling of profound agitation and of an imminent unpleasant experience, often with accompanying physical symptoms of racing pulse, sweating, breathlessness, etc. Normally, the sensation is experienced as a reaction to anxiety-provoking events (e.g. a trip to the dentist, ‘exam nerves’, etc.), and is relatively quickly dissipated. If the feeling of anxiety is unusually severe or protracted, or arises without apparent reason, then it is usually classified as one of the anxiety disorders.

Summary Article: Anxiety
from Encyclopedia of Emotion

Nearly everyone experiences moderate anxiety at some point in her lifetime, and most of us feel anxiety, at least in small degrees, nearly every day (hesitancy to approach a stranger due to fear of rejection, worries about money, concerns about what others think, etc.). Anxiety is experienced at multiple levels. Subjectively, it is a largely negative emotion. Behaviorally, it often manifests as avoidance; the anxious individual may become relatively socially withdrawn or otherwise timid. Physiologically, it involves activation of the sympathetic nervous system, which produces the stress response. Physiological symptoms include increased heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration, release of stress hormones, and others. Chronic anxiety can also bring fatigue, difficulty sleeping, muscle tension, and irritability.

Anxiety is a reaction to a perceived threat, as is fear. Unlike fear, however, which is a reaction to a specific stimulus or event, anxiety is often more diffuse or of uncertain origin. In general, compared to fear, which occurs immediately after an event has transpired, anxiety is centered on a possible experience in the future. In terms of brain structures, anxiety appears to be related to activity of a part of the stria terminalis (see Walker, Toufexis, & Davis, 2003). As Davis and his colleagues describe, the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis receives sensory input from a part of the brain (the thalamus) and, through connections with other anatomical structures (i.e., the hypothalamus of the brain and the brain stem), initiates long-lasting sympathetic nervous system responses (increased heart rate, etc.) in reaction to relatively vague threatening contexts. This action is different from, but overlaps with, the reaction that occurs with fear. In fear, the thalamus sends information to part of the amygdala, which, like the stria terminalis, has connections with anatomical structures that initiate sympathetic nervous system activity. Through this circuit, a reaction is produced to specific threatening stimuli (loud noise, bear approaching, etc.); the fear response is similar to anxiety (increased heart rate, blood pressure, etc.) but tends to be more intense and of shorter duration.

One of four versions of the Edvard Munch masterpiece The Scream, painted in 1893.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Particular brain chemicals are implicated in anxiety. The chemical that has been most studied is the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). GABA is the main brain chemical that inhibits the activity of neurons (i.e., when GABA interacts with a neuron, the result is that the usual activity of that neuron, i.e., firing, is decreased). Substances that increase the activity and effectiveness of GABA tend to decrease anxiety. The earliest substances that were discovered to have this effect were tranquilizers such as diazepam (Valium) and chlordiazepoxide (Librium). Thus tranquilizers are regularly used to treat anxiety conditions. Unfortunately, these medications tend to have a host of side effects, partly because GABA inhibits activity of many types of neurons, not just neurons involved in the occurrence of anxiety. GABA suppresses activity in much of the brain, producing memory loss, sleepiness, and slurred movement and speech.

Anxiety or fear are present in the anxiety disorders that are described by the American Psychiatric Association in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR; American Psychiatric Association, 2000). The prominent feature of both generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder is anxiety. The reaction in simple phobias (fears of specific objects or situations such as dogs, snakes, blood, closed spaces, etc.), however, is more accurately described as fear. Other major anxiety disorders, social phobias and posttraumatic stress disorder, involve both anxiety and fear. As researchers have learned more about anxiety and fear and the differences between the two, treatments for the various anxiety disorders have improved.

See also Anxiety Disorders Association of America, anxiolytic, fear, generalized anxiety disorder, neurotransmitter, panic disorder, phobia, posttraumatic stress disorder, sympathetic nervous system, Valium.

Further Readings
  • Bourne, E. J. (2005). The anxiety and phobia workbook. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.
  • Elliott, C. H., & Smith, L. L. (2002). Overcoming anxiety for dummies. New York: John Wiley.
  • Ohman, A. (2008). Fear and anxiety. In M. Lewis, J. M. Haviland-Jones, & L. F. Barrett (Eds.), Handbook of emotions (3rd ed., pp. 709-729). New York: Guilford.
  • References:
  • American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed., text rev.). Washington, DC: Author.
  • Walker, D. L., Toufexis, D. J., & Davis, M. (2003). Role of the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis versus the amygdale in fear, stress, and anxiety. European Journal of Pharmacology, 463, 199-216.
  • Copyright 2010 by Gretchen M. Reevy

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