What the Heck is Anxiety?

brown eyes of scared young person

Your first answer to the question “what the heck is anxiety?” might be “a pain in the neck!” Anxiety is uncomfortable, scary, overpowering, and downright difficult to manage. Although we can all agree that it sucks to feel anxious, would you believe me if I said that anxiety was a critical and useful tool in human survival? Didn’t expect that, did you?

First off, let’s get on the same page as to how anxiety is experienced. According to Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5th Edition (American Psychiatric Association, 2013) general anxiety is experienced as:

  • Restlessness or feeling keyed up or on edge.
  • Being easily fatigued.
  • Difficulty concentrating or mind going blank.
  • Irritability.
  • Muscle tension.
  • Sleep disturbance (difficulty falling or staying asleep, or restless, unsatisfying sleep).

Now, that’s what we therapists look at from a clinical lens. But, we know better than to narrow down anxiety to just those experiences. Anxiety can also feel like:

  • Overthinking
  • Tension or pain in the body
  • A feeling of panic or impending doom
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Telling yourself you can’t handle something

Sound familiar? Great, but why do so many humans share this exhausting and overbearing feeling of nervousness?

When Feeling Anxious is Necessary

Anxiety’s number one job is to protect you. Before modern day living, when humans were exposed to the elements more than we are now, we had to rely on our instinct to protect us. Our brains send us signals on when we are in danger and have to be on guard and when we are safe and can relax. Anxiety is the tool our brain uses to kick on our fight/flight/freeze response when danger is near. Anxiety is necessary because if we don’t feel fear when in danger, we are more likely to get hurt.

For example, if you see a bear in the wild, you’ll probably freeze, assess the situation, and get to safety. Although you may not have had a full-blown anxiety attack, feeling anxious help assess safety and make a decision that kept you alive.

When Anxiety is Not Necessary

Now you know why we experience anxiety. But why do we feel anxious when we’re not being chased by a bear? Why does calling your doctor’s office to schedule an appointment make your heart race? Why does public speaking make your hands sweaty? There are definitely times when anxiety is not necessary.

When you think of anxiety, I want you to think of a body guard or over-protective friend. All they want is to keep you safe and will jump at the slightest indication of threat. It thinks you need protection in neutral to mildly stimulating situations. So when you call your doctor for a routine checkup, anxiety reacts as though you’re being confronted by a big scary bear foaming at the mouth.


Great, now I know why anxiety happens, so what do I do about it? Personally, knowing why anxiety happens and learning more about it from professional resources has helped people recognize anxiety in times it’s not needed then giving it permission to go away.

There are a ton of tips and tricks to managing anxiety that you and your therapist can talk about. Everyone is different, so different coping mechanisms will work for different people. Regardless, remember the next time you talk to your boss, ask your crush out on a date, or speak in front on an audience, you can say, “Anxiety, there you are! I expected to see you here. But I don’t need you today, goodbye!” Talking to your anxiety is one of the many coping skills I teach my clients. For more of my favorite coping skills, please read my blog post here.

If you or someone you know is struggling with managing anxiety, don’t hesitate to talk to a mental health professional.


A therapist who also struggles with anxiety

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