What (exactly) is Anxiety?

If you were to see this, technically, you would feel anxiety.

There’s a terrific post here from Joseph LeDoux, professor of neural science and psychology at New York University, that defines anxiety, from the amygdala on up. LeDoux specifies anxiety as a flavor of fear. When you expect that you might face a threat, you feel anxiety. When you actually face that threat, you feel  fear.

The explanation is more necessary than it might seem. Twice in recent months, I’ve had male clients stare blank-faced and ask, “What exactly is anxiety?”  The first time, I had to stammer out an explanation of apprehension, physiological arousal and the fight-or-flight reaction, while hiding my surprise that  someone would need to ask. The second time, examples worked well: “Anxiety is what you feel when you walk in a room and everyone goes quiet.” “Anxiety is what you feel when the police car behind starts its’ siren.” For this client, “Anxiety is what you feel when your girlfriend says, ‘We need to talk’,” made the concept crystal-clear.

If you were to see this, technically, you would feel fear.

These conversations made me wonder why the question isn’t more common, and why only men have asked. In session, guys often seem more comfortable talking about ‘edginess’ or ‘agitation’ than with the A-word.  LeDoux’s explanation of anxiety hints at one possible reason why:

“… human anxiety is greatly amplified by our ability to imagine the future, and our place in it, even a future that is physically impossible.  With imagination we can ruminate over that yet to be experienced, possibly impossible scenario. We use this creative capacity to great advantage when we envision how to make our lives better, but we can just as easily put it to work in less productive ways — worrying excessively about the outcome of things.”

For some men, especially those with long memories of junior high school,  the best definition  might be, “Anxiety is what you feel when you think your buddies can see you’re nervous.”


@ 2012 Jonathan Miller All Rights Reserved


Filed under anxiety

3 responses to “What (exactly) is Anxiety?

  1. Cerian

    This is really interesting, thanks for posting it.

  2. Yes I found it a useful way to describe anxiety, thankyou for sharing it.
    You may be interested in the work of Dr Robin Balbernie. He is a child psychotherapist and has looked at the fight flight response and has developed some very interesting ideas that make a lot of sense. For example he introduced the interesting notion that ‘Reactive Attachment Disorder’ (RAD), when looked at through an evolutionary perspective, could be a smart survival tactic.

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