What is Anxiety and How Does It Work?

September 5, 2017

Anxiety is a mental health disorder that affects millions of people around the globe.

Diagnosis is tough. And in the US alone, a study suggests that 1 in 20 US adults are misdiagnosed due to medical errors. For doctors and those in the medical profession, getting this wrong can affect the course of treatment for those suffering anxiety confusing with symptoms of depression, stress and other mental health disorders.

Depression is one of those disorders that is commonly misdiagnosed. Due to the nature of the symptoms, depression can be mistaken for PTSD, anxiety or even bipolar disorder, which demands a very different set of medical treatment.

So with these misdiagnoses on the rise, with over 12 million errors, how do we know that you have anxiety?

In this article, we will discuss anxiety as a whole and decipher how anxiety works to showcase the differences between anxiety and other similar disorders.

What is Anxiety: The Definition

Anxiety is defined as a “multisystem response to perceived threats or dangers” (source).

Many doctors have different ways of explaining anxiety to their patients, but the consistent variable is that the threats and dangers are “perceived” giving the sufferer an understanding that the condition is based on mental health.

With all the types of anxiety documented by mental health professionals, there are lots of subsections of anxiety that can affect people. Being knowledgeable on those key types will help you to narrow down your understanding.

The most common types of anxiety include:

  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder (commonly known as GAD)
  • Social Anxiety Disorder
  • Panic Disorder
  • Agoraphobia
  • Phobias
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

With anxiety being tough to define thanks to the nature of each of its sub-conditions, we’d love to share a little on how anxiety works inside the mind and body.

How Anxiety Works

Anxiety starts from a sense of fear or pressure that puts you on the edge of your seat.

Due to this additional fear or pressure, your body is on high alert and you’re more aware of the potential threats around you, whether physical or virtual.

This triggers our fight or flight response, stressing our bodies emotionally and physically on a day-to-day basis, even when there is no real or imminent threat to your well-being.

Your body normally reacts differently depending on the intensity of the anxiety:

  • Acute anxiety refers to the short-term effects and interactions of anxiety. Commonly experienced when you have an issue with something or a stressful day at work, acute stress is very immediate with short-term responses, once the stressor has been removed you fall back into your natural state.
  • Chronic anxiety is commonly known as the more dangerous reaction with long-term effects. This revolves around anxiety pressuring you in deeper ways where there is an underlying issue. This tends to need time, attention and focus to help treat this form of anxiety.

As acute and chronic anxiety are only states of anxiety, it is important to understand the general symptoms of anxiety to detect whether you are suffering from more aggressive anxiety or the more acute version.

Anxiety is typically associated to the brain due to the process in which the mind translates anxiety into our everyday situations. The majority of the chemical interactions occur with neurotransmitters.

Neurotransmitters are little chemicals inside your body that send messages to your brain about how you should feel, think, act, and more.

Many neurotransmitters have been linked to anxiety, including:

  • Serotonin
  • GABA
  • Norepinephrine

Even dopamine may play a role in anxiety, or at least have a calming effect on those already living with symptoms of anxiety.

Interestingly, too much or too little of any hormone may also affect anxiety in different ways. The problem is with balance. If your brain doesn’t have enough serotonin, for example, it may cause you to experience anxiety symptoms.

As Calm Clinic explains:

“When it comes to neurotransmitter production, the truth is that cause and effect are rarely known. It’s often impossible to distinguish between poor neurotransmitter balance as a result of life experience, or poor neurotransmitter balance as a result of genetics. Both can occur in anyone living with anxiety, and in some cases a combination of both may be responsible for anxiety symptoms.”

The Effects of Anxiety

Common mental disorders like anxiety are on the rise worldwide.

The importance of understanding the concept of anxiety is vital for successful diagnosis and treatment.

Anxiety doesn’t need to show on the outside but can be felt intensely on the inside making it even harder to spot symptoms.

All of the following are symptoms of general anxiety with more systems arising a range of other types of anxiety. For a full outline of what symptoms to expect from the forms of anxiety, read more on the NIMH website.

Typical symptoms of anxiety are:

  • Feeling wound-up or on the edge
  • Fatigued easily
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Tension in the muscles
  • Issues controlling your worries
  • Sleep problems (all aspects)

Research suggests that between 1990 and 2013, the number of people suffering from anxiety or depression increased by nearly 50% from 416 million to over 600 million (Data from World Health Organisation, WHO).

This research showcases you are not alone, bringing forward your emotional and mental states to a medical diagnosis won’t make you weak, but help you to decipher whether you are one of the many sufferers of anxiety around the world.

The Long Term Effects of Anxiety

The effects of anxiety, if untreated, can be long-term.

Anxiety takes control of many aspects of your life and with continued stressors and levels of unease the sufferer can feel out of control.

Making life decisions like relationships, family, housing, friends and well being can all be put on hold or stressed when going through anxiety. With an inability to control anxiety, all of these areas come under threat to damage.

In the long-term anxiety doesn’t only affect the external factors, but your health and well-being, too – with some of the potential effects being the following;

  • Alcohol and substance abuse
  • Fear of leaving a house/safe environment
  • Depression or suicidal thoughts
  • Employment struggles
  • Compulsive disorders

Long-term effects aren’t seen solely on the individual, economically there has been concerns at how this form of mental health with affect health care. However, according to studies, the investment in treatment outweighs the costs involved.

World Health Organization (WHO) research suggests that the estimated costs of scaling treatments amount to $147 million for the US. However, the potential improvement in US workforce productivity (only by 5%) would result in almost $400 million in repayment with an additional $300+ million in health benefits.

The Differences Between Stress and Anxiety

Many people confuse anxiety with everyday stress.

Stress delivers similar reaction in the brain and body but is normally associated with acute anxiety where the period of intensity is shorter and stressor based.

Anxiety is commonly a feeling of unease. This sense of fear haunts the sufferer as they go across their day, whereas those with stress feel like they have more control in their daily activities.

Our bodies react differently with both of these, stress causes our body to react in our adrenal glands releasing adrenaline, a hormone which activates our defense systems, like blood pressure, heart speed, muscle tension and pupil dilation.

Anxiety is a longer-term response with some of these core stress-related symptoms but with additional fear, pressure, and loss of control.

With those who suffer from stressful situations and work-related stress, this can mould into a more chronic form of anxiety over time, if not treated and supported by the individual and those around them.

How to Overcome Anxiety

Treatments are continually being developed for overcoming anxiety.

Anxiety treatments provide sufferers with a course of action to begin to close the gap on their anxiety and their feelings of unease. Overcoming anxiety will take time, but due to the lack of guaranteed course of medical treatments, the anxiety is in the hands of the sufferer to take charge of.

A few notable treatments include;

  • Herbal remedies
  • Anxiety courses
  • Meditation and yoga
  • Relaxation periods
  • Emotion tracking

You can read our full post on overcoming anxiety here.

Apps and other resources can also be a helpful outlet to cope with anxiety, here are ten recommendations for applications on iOS and Android.

This article should have given you a better understanding of how anxiety works in the every day and how the brain works and reacts to the feelings and emotions of anxiety. If you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment.


Kouris Kalligas

CEO & Co-founder of Therachat.


Further reading on anxiety:

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