What Is Anxiety?

What Is Anxiety ?

Anxiety is your mind and body’s natural response to events that are threatening. The right amount of anxiety can help you, but too much anxiety can interfere with your life.

Some worry and anxiety is normal for everyone. But when anxiety is severe, lasts for several weeks and includes symptoms that keep you from doing things you usually would, it may be something to discuss with your health care professional.

Anxiety symptoms are real.

They are not just in your head. They can be treated, and they are nothing to be ashamed of.

Common Symptoms of Anxiety 



Thoughts that don’t go away

Avoidance of people places or things



Aches, pains

Rapid heartbeat

Shortness of breath



Dry mouth



Difficulty concentrating

Fight or Flight

As long as humans have been on earth, when they have been confronted with threatening situations, their bodies have had automatic responses to prepare them to fight the threat or run away from it.

For example:

Increased alertness

Increased heart rate

More blood flowing in the muscles of the arms and legs, possibly causing shaking or jitters

Less blood flowing in the digestive system so more blood is available to the arms and legs, possibly causing dry mouth or abdominal discomfort

Dilated pupils (for better vision)

Constricted blood vessels in the skin and open sweat glands, leading to paleness or clamminess

In our brains, the hypothalamus , when stimulated, directs nerve cells to fire and starts a chemical release increasing adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol in the blood and causing the reactions listed above.

In people with depression, bipolar disorder and/or anxiety disorders, the fight or flight response may be stimulated more often and for longer periods of time than in people without these illnesses.

This means that more things are perceived as threatening. An out-of-balance fight or flight response can cause a person to:

Have a real physical reaction to everyday people, places or things

Believe danger is around every corner

Be convinced something terrible will happen if certain things aren’t done a certain way

Feel constantly keyed-up and on-edge

Avoid everyday people, places or things in an effort to avoid the anxiety response

All of these things can interfere with people’s lives so much that they aren’t able to do things they would like to do and their relationships are strained or lost.

You are not alone.

DBSA asked web site visitors to take an anxiety survey in March 2005., and more than 95% of the people, most of whom were diagnosed with depression or bipolar disorder , had experienced anxiety symptoms .

Anxiety can begin early in life for people with depression or bipolar disorder.

More than half the people said they had experienced anxiety some time between birth and age 18. Even if you can’t remember a time when you didn’t feel worried or fearful, there are things you can do today to work toward a life that is not controlled by anxiety

Treating and Living with Anxiety Symptoms 

Anxiety is treatable. People are helped by a treatment plan developed in partnership with health care providers which includes therapy, medication, support from others who understand.

When we asked people living with anxiety and a mood disorder what they are doing to treat their anxiety, here’s what they said:

Medication… 62.9 %

Self-talk… 39.7 %

Talk therapy… 35.3 %

Relaxation exercises… 25.8 %

Peer support… 13.7 %

Other popular responses included: physical exercise, creative activities, and learning more about anxiety Medications.

Many medications that treat depression can also work for anxiety. Other times, a person takes a combination of medications to relieve anxiety symptoms .

It may take some time for your medications to start working. It may also take more than one try to find a combination that works for you. Learn all you can about medications prescribed for your depression and bipolar disorder and what you can do if you think your treatment should be working better.

Your doctor may prescribe additional medications called benzodiazepines for your anxiety and sleep.

Some people develop a tolerance (need to take more to get the same effect) to these medications and other people don’t.

Greg Simon, MD, a member of DBSA’s Scientific Advisory Board, explains, “If you are prescribed benzodiazepines over the long term, your doctor should monitor closely for signs of tolerance.

I tell my patients, ‘If you feel that you need to take more of this, you really need to take less.’ ” Track your medications and learn more about side effects


Mood and anxiety disorders can affect a person’s thinking. Symptoms of these illnesses can make it more difficult to see things in a positive light or feel hopeful about the future.

It’s not as easy as simply “thinking positive” to overcome your anxiety or mood disorder, but you can learn to spot self-defeating thoughts and see them for what they are.

Self-defeating beliefs include:

Believing things are all good or all bad

Anticipating the worst will happen

Believing the good things in your life don’t count

Thinking that if you believe something (for example, that someone is angry with you) it must be true

Many people have found that practicing self-talk helps them to beat their self-defeating beliefs. Here’s a self-talk exercise you may want to practice if you notice yourself having self-defeating thoughts:

Self-defeating thought Rational response

New thought

I will never feel better.

Never is a long time I don’t know how I’ll feel tomorrow.

Even though I feel terrible right now, I won’t always feel this way.

Talk therapy can also help you identify this type of thinking and work to correct it.

More than 40% of the people in DBSA’s survey said their health care providers suggested talk therapy as a treatment for their anxiety.

Therapy can help you do many things, including:

Understanding your illness

Defining and reaching wellness goals

Overcoming fears or insecurities

Coping with stress

Making sense of past traumatic experiences

Developing a plan for coping with crises

Understanding why things bother you and what you can do about them

Sometimes anxiety can be caused by an automatic reaction to a person, place or thing called a “trigger”.

You may know exactly what your triggers are, or you might be able to identify new triggers by recording your anxiety and life events on a day-to-day basis.

In therapy, you can work on your reactions to these triggers, or make changes in your life to rid yourself of the triggers.

More about talk therapy

Relaxation Exercises

Relaxation exercises include activities such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation and meditation. Many people living with anxiety and mood disorders find these exercises to be very helpful.

Deep breathing

Lie down on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Place one hand on your abdomen and one hand on your chest. Take slow, deep breaths through your nose into your abdomen. The hand on your abdomen should rise with each breath. Exhale slowly and gently through your mouth. Continue taking these slow, deep breaths for 5-10 minutes.

Progressive muscle relaxation

First find a comfortable position. You can do this exercise either sitting or standing. Once you’re comfortable, close your eyes. Make a fist with your right hand. Notice the tension in your hand when you do this. Clench the fist for one minute and then relax your hand. Be aware of the difference between the tense and relaxed muscles. Repeat.

Continue these steps for the following muscle groups. Relax your muscles after each step.

Clench your left hand into a fist.

Flex your biceps while bending your elbows.

Wrinkle your forehead.

Close your eyes tightly.

Press your lips together tightly.

Press your tongue against the roof of your mouth.

Clench your jaw.

Suck in your stomach and hold it; then expand it by taking a deep breath to fill it with air.

Arch your back to tense it.

Press your heels into the ground to flex your thighs.

Make your calves tense by curling your toes down.

Tense your shins by bending your toes towards the top of your foot.


Find a quiet location and make sure you won’t be interrupted for 10-15 minutes.

Get into a comfortable sitting or lying position. Find a spot on the ceiling or on a blank wall to focus on. Take a long, deep breath in, hold it for a few seconds, and then let it out very slowly. Repeat this two more times. Now close your eyes and continue your breathing pattern.

You may want to put on soothing music while you meditate, or you may be content to sit in silence. Focus on your breathing. Anytime your mind starts to wander, bring yourself back to thinking about your breathing. You can do this exercise for as long or as short of a time as you want.

When you are ready to finish, sit still a moment and take several deep breaths and return to whatever activity awaits.

Peer Support

If you are feeling anxious, depressed or manic, talking to others may not be the first thing you want to do.

But DBSA Support Groups are more than talking – they are places where you can learn about your disorder and find understanding and new ways to cope.

If you don’t feel up to leaving the house, do everything you can to stay in touch with people. Call someone, send an e-mail or log on to DBSA’s Forums or Online Support Groups.

Talking to your health care provider

You have the best chance of getting an accurate diagnosis and treatment that works if you tell your health care providers all of your symptoms.

In addition to symptoms like worry, tension and fear, be sure to bring up symptoms like pains in your head, back, or stomach; shaking or trembling, rapid heartbeat or shortness of breath for no apparent reason. If you often forget things, make a list of your anxiety symptoms or concerns before your appointment and bring it with you.

Tracking your panic attack symptoms daily can surprise you.

You might notice patterns or certain symptoms that affect you more than you realized. See yourself as a partner with your health care provider. You aren’t wasting their time by asking for things you need.

You have a right to:

Privacy, confidentiality and respect

Sensitivity to your needs and cultural background

An understandable explanation of what is the matter and all of your treatment options

Freedom to find another professional if you are not satisfied with your treatment or don’t think it’s working as well as it should

Help track your symptoms and talk to your health care provider

What helps friends and family members with anxiety?

Over 3000 people took DBSA’s recent survey on anxiety and mood disorders .

Here’s what they said did and did not help them when they were dealing with anxiety symptoms.

How do your loved ones help you?

58% They listen to me talk about how I feel.

50% They reassure me.

47% They remind me not to be so hard on myself.

46% They give me space.

42% They support the idea that my illness is chemically based and not my fault.

In addition, many people wrote in responses.

They said the best things their friends and family did for them was to:

Recognize what I am going through.

Talk to me, help me calm down when I’m keyed up or panicked. For example, if I lose something, help me think of where it might be.

Praise my accomplishments.

If I become very irritable, you might need to get out of my way.

Drive me to appointments, take me out to eat or go shopping with me when I’m able to leave home.

Comfort me.

Go to therapy with me.

Let me cry on your shoulder.

Help with expenses.

Tell me you care about me.

What do your friends/family do that you do NOT find helpful?

49% They put demands on me.

49% They act like nothing is wrong.

48% They tell me to get my act together.

47% They pressure me to go out and do things.

45% They blame me for what I can’t help.

Additional responses included:

They treat me as if I am stupid or imagining things.

They tell me I am selfish and my illness is caused by bad life decisions.

They ignore the situation and hope it will go away.

They tell me I need to get a job.

They assume I could fix it if I didn’t dwell on it.

They get irritated and tell me I’m getting tense.

They tell me I need to grow up.

They try to run my life.

They crowd me.

It’s important to remember that every person is different and needs different forms of support, especially when you are asking What Is Anxiety

Talk to your loved one to see what you can do to help them, if they have any anxiety attack symptoms 

Read excerpts from Talking to Anxiety, a book by Claudia J. Strauss for people who care about someone with anxiety

Grateful thanks to Arthur Buchanan for his contribution to this article.

Out of Darkness & Into the Light
209 Ellis Ave. Suite 1313
Bellevue, Ohio44811

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