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Everyone occasionally experiences some anxiety. It is a normal response to a stressful event or perceived threat. Anxiety can range from feeling uneasy and worried to severe panic.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is an uncomfortable feeling of fear or impending disaster and reflects the thoughts and bodily reactions a person has when they are presented with an event or situation that they cannot manage or undertake successfully. When a person is experiencing anxiety their thoughts are actively assessing the situation, sometimes even automatically and outside of conscious attention, and developing predictions of how well they will cope based on past experiences.

Although some anxiety is a normal response to a stressful situation, when the anxiety level is too high a person may not come up with an effective way of managing the stressful or threatening situation. They might “freeze”, avoid the situation, or even fear they may do something that is out of character.
Anxiety generally causes people to experience the following responses:

  • An intense physical response due to arousal of the nervous system leading to physical symptoms such as a racing heartbeat.
  • A cognitive response which refers to thoughts about the situation and the person’s ability to cope with it. For someone experiencing high anxiety this often means interpreting situations negatively and having unhelpful thoughts such as “This is really bad” or “I can’t cope with this”.
  • A behavioural response which may include avoidance or uncharacteristic behaviour including aggression, restlessness or
    irrational behaviour such as repeated checking.
  • An emotional response reflecting the high level of distress the person is experiencing.

What causes anxiety?

There is no one cause of high anxiety. Rather, there are a number of factors that may contribute to the development of anxious thoughts and behaviour. Some causes of anxiety are listed below.

  • Hereditary factors
    • Research has shown that some people with a family history of anxiety are more likely (though not always) to also experience anxiety.
  • Biochemical factors
    • Research suggests that people who experience a high level of anxiety may have an imbalance of chemicals in the brain that regulate feelings and physical reactions. Medication that helps to correct this imbalance can relieve some symptoms of anxiety in some people.
  • Life experiences
    • Certain life experiences can make people more susceptible to anxiety. Events such as a family break-up, abuse, ongoing bullying at school, and workplace conflict can be stress factors that challenge a person’s coping resources and leave them vulnerable to experiencing anxiety.
  • Personality style
    • Certain personality types are more at risk of high anxiety than others. People who have a tendency to be shy, have low self-esteem, and a poor capacity to cope are more likely to experience high levels of anxiety.
  • Thinking styles
    • Certain thinking styles make people more at risk of high anxiety than others. For instance, people who are perfectionistic or expect to be in constant control of their emotions are more at risk of worrying when they feel stress.
  • Behavioural styles
    Certain ways of behaving also place people at risk of maintaining high anxiety. For instance, people who are avoidant are not likely to learn ways of handling stressful situations, fears and high anxiety.

What are the symptoms of anxiety?

The experience of anxiety will vary from person to person. Central features of anxiety include ongoing worry or thoughts that are
distressing and that interfere with daily living. In addition to worry or negative thinking, symptoms of anxiety may include:

  • Confusion
  • Trembling
  • Sweating
  • Faintness/dizziness
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Upset stomach or nausea
  • Restlessness
  • Avoidance behaviour
  • Irritability

For more information please go to APS website. 

©2015 The Australian Psychological Society

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