Why Defining Anxiety & Anxiety Disorders Matters

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Health And Wellness

When you feel anxious, is it something normal, or something you should, well, worry about? Answers aren’t as straightforward as you might think.

Anxiety disorders, definition wise, are hard to pin down. Many people are confused over the role of anxiety in their lives.

Many working definitions hold that some anxiety is normal, whereas too much anxiety is bad. But few discuss the actual quality of anxiety, or how moderate anxiety and stress can correlate with optimal functioning.

As science evolves, psychologists, physicians, researchers, and scientists are learning more about the experience and purpose of emotions in general, and importantly, how you can enact control.

There are pointed differences in what many experience with anxiety and anxiety disorders. Understanding these differences matters both for individuals who deal with anxiety regularly and professionals who help treat anxiety. 

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Defining what anxiety really is isn’t as straightforward as you might think.

Many use anxiety synonyms to describe a range of anxiety experiences, adding to potential confusion. But is there a difference between worry, stress, fear, and panic?

Worry is defined as, “a state of anxiety and uncertainty over actual or potential problems.” Worry is the cognitive part of anxiety, the thinking part necessary to imagine potential solutions.

Stress, on the other hand, has to do with our experience of a demand to change. A term originally coined by Hans Selye in the 1930s, stress is the motivation to adjust your behavior to what's required.

Fear is defined as, “the emotional response to a real or perceived imminent threat.”

Panic reflects the most extreme form of clinical experience of anxiety: “An abrupt surge of intense fear or intense discomfort that reaches a peak within minutes,” and includes a variety of symptoms

Anxiety is defined as the “anticipation of future threat.”

Anxiety is different for every person feeling it.

Describing what anxiety is like can be hard since the experience varies for everyone. How you define your experience turns out to be an important part of your anxiety.

While there are some key differences in the above definitions of anxiety, stress, worry, fear, and panic, there are still blurred lines and considerable overlap separating them.

As with all emotions, how you define anxiety has as much to do with who you are and how you feel about it as the actual experience of it does.

Anxiety is a broad word used to describe a wide range of experiences.

Understanding what the emotion of anxiety is and what an anxiety disorder is can help.

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines anxiety as, “... an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes, like increased blood pressure.”

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) describes anxiety this way:

“Anxiety is a normal part of living. It’s a biological reaction — the body’s way of telling us something isn’t right. ... If it interferes with your regular daily activities, or even makes them impossible, you may have an anxiety disorder.”

Beyond temporary worry or fear, anxiety disorders are marked by intense and excessive worry that's difficult to control, interferes with daily activities, and persists for long periods of time.

When anxiety doesn’t feel controllable, it tends to persist and worsen, leading to further symptoms and distress.

There are four common types of anxiety disorders.

They are social anxiety, generalized anxiety disorder, specific phobias (e.g., separation anxiety), and panic disorder.

There are also less-common anxiety disorders which include obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Social anxiety refers to anxiety that is most often related to social interactions or the anticipation of them. It's the most common form of anxiety.

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is characterized by persistent and excessive anxiety about a variety of events and activities accompanied by physical symptoms.

Phobias are extreme, irrational fears that cause anxiety, such as a fear of clowns, being separated from family or friends, the number 13, or even leaving your home.

Panic disorders are often synonymous with panic attacks, meaning an acute onset of severe anxiety often marked by the physiological symptoms of a "threat response," i.e. "fight or flight mode."

Stress means something different in the context of anxiety.

Stress is something people routinely admit, sometimes even wear as a badge of honor, conveying that you're busy, engaged, and needed. Who hasn’t told someone they're worried about something important?

But when it comes to talking about anxiety, the word is heavier, and for most brings a bit of pause.

Perhaps because anxiety disorders are called anxiety "disorders," which taints the word, giving it the stigma of mental health problems, even though worry, stress, panic, and fear are all symptoms of anxiety.

Anxiety itself is not a disorder. Nor is anxiety an abnormal, unhealthy emotion. Anxiety can be a completely normal part of human life.

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What is normal anxiety?

While key mental health organizations reference occasional normal anxiety, none specifically elaborate on normal anxiety, or how anxiety can be a useful, constructive emotion.

Given that clinical psychology has evolved from the medical model of studying mental illness, normal anxiety has seldom been studied or defined.

In my opinion, the best definition of anxiety is: "... both the feeling of realizing something you care about may be at risk and the resources you need to protect it."

Fundamentally, anxiety is a powerful hardwired emotion we all experience from time to time. It's a normal human emotion that can guide you toward your best self or be the catalyst to discomfort.

There are three "voices" of anxiety.

Anxiety comes through in three different internal voices: yelling, chattering, and whispering.

Dealing with "yelling" anxiety.

Yelling is anxiety at its most severe. This is the place where symptoms are unmistakable, disruptive, deeply uncomfortable, and scary.

In some cases, internal yelling causing physical distress or panic, limiting your ability to manage everyday life. It activates your physiological threat response, causing you to feel fear, dread, and a sense that things outside of your control are happening.

When “yelling” anxiety strikes, it exceeds what’s best for your well-being, and all you want is to make it go away. Pulling it back into a more moderate range is critical to being able to use it effectively.

This starts with facing your fear and knowing you can handle it. No matter how uncomfortable, intense, and scary anxiety can be, it still remains a feeling that cannot fundamentally hurt you. You can handle anxiety — even the most intense symptoms of it — so long as you know you can.

“Chatter” anxiety is the most common form of anxiety.

Chatter is the kind of constant anxiety that motivates you to pay attention, stay on task, and keep going. It’s too loud to be ignored, but soft enough not to be deafening or debilitating.

In many ways, this is the best kind of anxiety to work with, because it’s tangible but not out of control. Stress is the other name we use to describe this kind of “chatter” anxiety.

For most of us, some form of stress is constant. At its best, stress motivates you to stay on task and keep pushing forward.

“Whisper” anxiety is quieter and often gets mistaken for other things.

This is the kind of anxiety that nags you, sometimes irritating you, urging you to pay attention, and take notice. This includes those feelings that remind you that something just isn’t right.

Like other forms of anxiety, “whisper” anxiety’s job is to keep bugging you until you pay attention and start focusing on solutions. But unlike other forms of anxiety, “whisper” anxiety isn’t urgent.

It's a subtle reminder that priorities are awaiting your attention. In this way, “whisper” anxiety can be stealthy and shows up as procrastination, dreaming, worrying, and irritability.

Anxiety — whether positive or negative — is a calculation of stress.

You evaluate the potential impact of an event and how you anticipate feeling about it.

While clinical definitions of anxiety focus on the emotional distress surrounding a potential danger, how you metabolize stress doesn’t have to be negative or work against you. There is such a thing as “good stress” that can be leveraged to help you.

How to use stress and anxiety positively in your life.

Now that you know how to identify anxiety, how can you use it for good in your life? Knowing the difference between healthy and unhealthy anxiety isn’t always straightforward.

Ask yourself: How much is anxiety affecting my life all around? How afraid do I feel about anxiety? What am I doing with this anxiety?

These questions help describe your experience with anxiety, and in turn, determine how well you cope with it. How you feel about anxiety can also give clues to how much difficulty it causes in your life.

When you're anxious and are rather matter-of-fact about it, you're dealing with about tolerable and hopefully useful anxiety. But when you talk about feeling anxiety with fear or sadness, it's taking a toll on you.

How you think about anxiety matters — a lot.

Your attitude can shape your experience in almost every way, including how you define anxiety in your life. According to one study, if you can view stress and anxiety as helpful resources, you can use it to your betterment instead of your detriment.

How we label anxiety matters a great deal, too. If you label anxiety as something positive — like excitement or readiness — you'll experience that. If you label it as something scary, you increase your distress.

Simply defining your experience can deliver a great deal of control over it — more than you ever realized.

So next time you're dealing with anxiety, name it, define it, and change your perspective. Use it to make your experience with it positive instead of negative, and look at what you can accomplish!

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Dr. Alicia Clark is a licensed clinical psychologist. For more help with managing stress and anxiety, check out her anxiety blog, download her free ebook, or sign up for her newsletter.

This article was originally published at Alicia Clark Psy D.. Reprinted with permission from the author.