The Nature of Anxiety

Anxiety is a complex human emotion. This complexity is revealed in the lack of consensus among researchers and philosophers regarding a definition for the emotion. Furthermore, as psychologist Richard Hallam notes, definitions do not always agree with the complexity and nuances of anxiety experienced by clinicians working with individuals who have anxiety disorders. According to Hallam, the term anxiety can refer to the behavioral and physiological response directly caused by a situation, and appraisal of the responses and their effects, a person’s intentions  toward a situation, and a person’s intentions toward a situation, and a person’s evaluation of the resources available for dealing with the situation.

The complexities of anxiety as an emotion steam, in part, from its association with other emotions, especially with fear. Psychologist Carroll Izard contends that the term anxiety is rather imprecise, referring to a wide range of affect combinations that involve fear. According to Izard, anxiety involves a combination of fundamental emotions, including fear and two or more of the emotions of anger, shame/shyness, distress, guilt, and interest/ excitement. Izard maintains that these six emotions are variable components of a complex pattern. The relative importance of these emotions in the anxiety pattern varies with the individual and his or her life situation. Izard further maintains that these individual variations in the pattern of emotions involved with anxiety are a function of both hereditary and experiential determinants.

Anxiety may be conceptualized as a transitory state or as a personality trait. The distinction between state anxiety and trait anxiety centers on time or duration of the emotion experience. State anxiety is a temporary condition that occurs in selected situations. For example, public speaking causes many people to experience state anxiety; it is only in this situation that they find themselves feeling anxious. Trait anxiety, on the other hand, refers to one’s proneness to experience stat anxiety. Trait anxiety is a personality characteristic that predisposes one to experience state anxiety in a wide range of situations. Psychologist Michael Eysenck contends that a person high in trait anxiety is one who has highly developed danger-detection processes that cause the individual to become hyper-vigilant and grossly exaggerate the number and severity of threatening or dangerous events in the environment. The primary focus in this entry, however, is state anxiety.

Central to the understanding of anxiety is the concept of threat. Anxiety is aroused when some characteristic of a situation is perceived as being threatening. Psychologist Charles Spielberger notes that “the appraisal of a particular situation as threatening will be determined by the objective stimulus characteristics of the situation, the individual’s experience with similar situations, and the memories or thoughts that are reintegrated or evoked by the situation”. Some threats are unique to an individual, while others may be shared by individuals within a group, an organization, a region, a culture, or a nation. For example, uncertainty about an upcoming exam or public speaking engagement may create anxiety regarding an impending project deadline. People who live in a certain city or region of a state may experience anxiety over some environmental concern, such as contamination of the ground water. At a global level, the changes in weather patterns, such as El Nino, or the testing of nuclear weapons may cause large groups of people to experience anxiety when their thoughts are directed to use uncertain situations.

Hallam suggests that threats may be physical, social, psychological, or material in nature. Physical threats center on one’s health and welfare. That death or injury may result from severe weather, riding in an airplane, or swimming in a lake or pound creates anxiety for some people. Psychological threats center on one’s emotional well-being. Situations where one, ore one’s loved one, may feel embarrassed or experience a loss of self-esteem may be very threatening to some people. The prospect of being rejected socially, a concern for public speakers, may be result when certain material possessions or earnings are threatened.

The term stress is used to refer to the objective properties of a situation that are characterized by some degree of psychological or physical danger, whereas threat refers to the “perception” of a situation as being more or less dangerous or personally threatening.Spielberg offers this comparison on the concepts:


Situations that are objectively stressful are likely to be perceived as threatening by most people, but whether or not a particular person will interpret a specific situation as threatening will depend upon that individual’s subjective appraisal of the situation. Thus, a stressful situation may not be perceived as threatening by an individual who either does not recognize the inherent danger or has the necessary skills and experience to cope with it.


Complex cognitive processes are associated with anxiety. Eysenck contends that worry is the cognitive components of anxiety and “occurs in response to the actual or potential non-achievement of goals associated with the domestic, social. and work areas of life. Chronic worry is seen by the American Psychiatric Association to be the central feature of generalized anxiety disorder, a condition in which one frequently or excessively contemplates various negative future events that most likely will not occur. Studies of  GAD (generalized anxiety disorder) patients suggest that worry may serve a number of functions for the individual. Psychologists Graham Davey and Frank Tallis note that worriers believe that their worry will make a feared event less likely to occur, that worrying will generate strategies for avoiding some feared event, that worrying may serves to motivate one to perform certain tasks that must be addressed given that some event will occur. As with anxiety, worry may be experienced as a temporary state or as a pathological condition/

While anxiety may appear to be closely related to fear, there are important distinctions between the two concepts. Spielberger distinguished between fear and anxiety as follows:

Fear generally denotes an emotional reaction to the anticipation of injury or harm from some real, objective danger in the external environment. Another defining characteristic of fear is that the intensity of fear reaction is proportional to the magnitude of the danger that evokes it. In contrast, anxiety is traditionally regarded as an “objectless” emotional reaction because either the stimulus conditions that evoke it are unknown, or the intensity of the emotional reaction is disproportionately greater that the magnitude of the objective danger. Thus, the traditional distinction between fear and anxiety is based on the assumption that similar emotional reactions result from the operation of different mediating processes.

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