How To Define Anxiety

Updated January 22, 2021
Medically Reviewed By: Whitney White, MS. CMHC, NCC., LPC

Most people have experienced feeling anxious before. The night before a big exam, moments before a solo during a choir concert, and going on a first date are all common reasons for feelings of anxiety. These are all regular events that can twist your stomach into knots and make your heart race. However, there is a difference in having anxiety over a specific brief situation and having anxiety disorders that can upend your life.

By defining anxiety, you can better understand the difference between the fleeting feeling and a lasting disorder. You can then determine how best to proceed with your anxiety – is therapy necessary, or can you get past your anxious mind with some stress relief? Dissecting the definition of anxiety may shed some light on the topic.

What Is The Dictionary Definition Of Anxiety?

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The dictionary definition of anxiety, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is “apprehensive uneasiness or nervousness usually over an impending or anticipated ill.” In other words, if you’re feeling fearful of something that you know is coming, you are likely feeling anxiety. Another definition from the same source says “mentally distressing concern or interest” is another way to think of anxiety. For this one, the dictionary definition makes anxiety seem as though it’s is simply a negative thought.

When it comes to feeling anxious, it can be as short-lived as a single negative thought. It might even be something that lasts for a week up to a big event. Anxiety, as an emotion, is not typically something that is considered a medical or mental health concern until there is another component added. Breaking down the medical definition of anxiety may help you to see what that component is.

What Is The Medical Definition Of Anxiety?

In a medical sense, anxiety is an abnormal and intense feeling of fear and unease. It comes with various physical symptoms, some of which can be severe, and it lasts far longer than a week or two. When it becomes a medical concern, anxiety has lasted several months without much reprieve. This is when medical and mental health professionals consider the possibility and presence of anxiety disorders.

Anxiety can disrupt the regular flow of life to an extreme in some cases. People with varying degrees of anxiety disorders might skip out on an opportunity to network with big names in their industry because of their fear of meeting new people and being in crowds. An individual with an anxiety disorder might also wholly lose their job because they are unable to take the subway into the office. Others may even be unable to sleep, causing their grades to drastically fall. Whatever it is, if anxiety has, in some way, made an impact on the way you live your life, you may find counseling to help determine the best course of action.

What Types Of Anxiety Disorders Are Most Common?

The most common form of anxiety disorders is a generalized anxiety disorder. With a generalized anxiety disorder, individuals typically feel overwhelmed and worried about life. This worry is their “normal” and can detract from other areas of their life. Generalized anxiety disorder, also called by its acronym, GAD, creates problems with focus. It can also bring physical symptoms into a person’s life, including headaches, nausea, and muscle tension.

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Another common one in the list of anxiety disorders is that of phobias. Most people are familiar with phobias – an intense fear of something. For some people, that fear is of spiders. Others have an extreme fear of heights. For the individual with an extreme fear of heights, working on the third floor of a building might cause them serious distress. They might even avoid living anywhere that is not on the ground level. Phobias such as these tend to trigger anxiety, so the individual attempts to control that aspect of their life. Doing so tends to bleed over into other areas of their life, causing an unhealthy way of living.

Separation anxiety is a type of anxiety disorder that creates worry about another person to the point where they don’t want to be away from the other individual. There is a constant fear that something bad is going to happen to them, so they choose to stay with them. When they are separated, symptoms may include uncontrollable crying, inability to focus, and poor school or work performance. This disorder can be present in children or adults. The attachment can be formed to a parent, friend, another family member, significant other, or in some cases, a pet.

Social anxiety disorder is one of the more common anxiety disorders. With a social anxiety disorder, the individual fears embarrassment in a social setting. They might also be constantly worried that they are being judged. To avoid that judgment or embarrassment, they tend to attempt to avoid social situations altogether. For many with this disorder, that includes people that they consider friends, coworkers, and even family. Extreme cases of social anxiety dislike (and avoid) being in public at all. This causes problems when it comes to getting groceries, attending work or school, or simply being outside.

Do I Have An Anxiety Disorder?

If you related to any of the common anxiety disorders listed above, you might be wondering: do I have an anxiety disorder? Although it is easy to read a list of symptoms and point out the ones that you share in common with that list, a diagnosis should be determined by a mental health professional such as a therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist. No blood test will determine the presence of an anxiety disorder, so it may be necessary for a health professional to do both physical and mental assessments.

Treating Anxiety Disorders

Once diagnosed, treatment must be sought out. Although it might seem intimidating to seek help for anxiety disorders, knowing that help is truly possible may make the idea easier. There are several ways in which anxiety can be treated. The most common is with therapy. 

Therapy As Treatment For Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety disorders are most frequently treated with therapy. The most common form of therapy for anxiety is known as CBT or cognitive behavioral therapy. CBT is a team effort between therapist and patient that focuses in on the negative thoughts that are often involved in anxiety. These are specific to the patient. The two work through the negativity together and tend to see positive results in less than a year.

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Helping With Feelings Of Anxiety

If your anxiety has not quite delved into an anxiety disorder, but you are seeking relief from your situation, there are several natural ways to decrease stress and anxiety in your life. Many professionals advise getting outside in the sunlight to help your body’s circadian rhythm. This allows for better sleep, which also reduces anxiety. Additionally, exercise is crucial to decreasing anxiety levels. Whether you go for a run, do yoga, or hit the weights, getting your heart pumping is a great way to release natural mood-boosters in your body.

Many individuals have found success in using essential oils to help lower anxiety. Others use soothing music and a bubble bath. Massages and spa treatments are also relaxing activities that can reduce your anxiety level. With so many options, it is important that you simply make it a priority to decrease stress and anxiety in your life. By placing focus on these other activities, the anxiety will have less room to creep into your relaxed mind.

Mediate, take a vacation, or read a book – what’s important is that you focus on relaxing before reaching severe levels of anxiety. By preventing further issues from anxiety, an individual can be prepared to handle anxiety from a variety of sources without the need for medical treatment.

Do I Need Help With My Anxiety?

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If you are wondering if you might require treatment for your anxiety, it may be best to seek out the opinion of mental health professionals. As an outside observer with knowledge and experience in mental health, a therapist or psychiatrist can help you to decide if therapy is necessary. They may even suggest that you try just one session before making a final decision. Doing so can help you to get a better feeling on if therapy might help or if you should simply focus on lowering your anxiety level on your own.

If you do choose to attempt to de-stress to avoid medicinal treatment or therapy, try to be aware of your mental health so that you can reevaluate if necessary. Seeking help is brave, and it can lead to relief for anxiety disorders. Do not hesitate to reach out for help if you feel that doing it alone is too much. Doing so can change your life.

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