Updated: 29/11/16

What do we mean by Anxiety?

Although widely understood, there remains some debate regarding the true nature of anxiety, undoubtedly compounded by the range of associated terms, e.g. fear, worry, stress, unease, apprehension etc.

Indeed, The Oxford English Dictionary defines anxiety as “a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease about something with an uncertain outcome.”

The ‘forward thinking’ nature of anxiety is echoed in various alternative definitions, and would therefore seem a key consideration in securing our understanding. We tend to be anxious about an upcoming situation or event. A similar key theme is that of ‘perceived threat’. Although the nature and degree of this perceived threat can vary considerably between individuals (i.e. what one finds threatening, and how threatening one finds it), the anxiety response is often very similar – reflecting the evolutionary function of anxiety outlined below. All of us will be familiar with this response, as anxiety is a common and often very useful response to various stimuli.

Here we will focus however, on the excessive or problem anxiety faced by pupils in schools. It is widely accepted within the related literature that anxiety is an adaptive response to perceived threat or danger, whereby an individual’s body prepares itself to either face (i.e. fight) or run away (i.e. flight) from the threat posed. If personal safety is threatened, e.g. from a wild animal, a highly-tuned anxiety response would help ensure your survival and therefore the survival of your genes – including the effective anxiety response. Over time, the types of threats faced in our daily lives have changed considerably, although our response to these threats (i.e. our anxiety) has remained the same.
When a person’s response is proportional to the threat posed, we might call this objective or ’normal’ anxiety. When a person’s response is greater than the amount of threat posed, we might call this neurotic or problem anxiety.
When an individual’s anxiety prevents them from completing (developmentally appropriate) every day tasks, they are said to experiencing an Anxiety Disorder, which are typically categorised into one of the following five broad groups:
• Separation Anxiety
• Phobic Anxiety (e.g. relating to objects, social situations, possible injury);
• Panic Disorder / Panic Attack
• Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
• Generalised Anxiety
Cognitive-Behaviour approaches conceptualise anxiety as consisting of the following three elements; thoughts, feelings and behaviours.
Thoughts: How much threat one attributes to a particular stimuli. Different people attribute various levels of threat to the same stimulus.
Feelings: Anxiety, worry, fear, uneasiness etc.
Behave: What one does when faced with a threatening experience (importantly, whether one remains or leaves the situation)
The following equation can also prove useful in conceptualising a person’s individual anxiety:
Anxiety = Likelihood X Cost
Coping X Recovery

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