ANXIETY: WHAT IT IS AND WHAT IT CAUSES

Anxiety (cf. the Latin word anxietas, i.e., anxiety, trouble of the mind, and the verb angere, meaning to choke or oppress) is characterised by a variety of generally unpleasant sensations including fear, nervousness, apprehension, worry, the sensation that things may get out of hand, the need to find an immediate solution and, in the case of prolonged exposure to stress, also frustration and desperation.

Anxiety is in any case a natural, universally-experienced emotional state. It is generated by a psychological mechanism of response to stress (see: ‘Stress’), which has the function of ensuring timely and early perceptions of possible danger. Through this mechanism, specific physiological responses are triggered, which on the one hand drive the individual to explore the environment in order to identify danger and cope with it in an adequate manner and on the other hand prepares the organism for avoidance or possible flight. The mechanism of avoidance and attention to possible dangers, which is found only in human beings and primates, facilitates the development of knowledge of the surrounding world and improves our level of adaptation.

For this simple reason we have all experienced anxiety and are always subject to occasionally experiencing the condition. We are thus also capable of easily comprehending anxiety in others and identifying with their state. Generally speaking, anxiety is a basic and entirely spontaneous human emotional state, which has the function of protecting us against external threats. It prepares us for action and simultaneously provides us with a form of motivation to interact with the world surrounding us.

Anxiety has other fundamental functions besides the one mentioned above. It can in fact assist us as we perform our daily tasks, and especially those activities we are not particularly interested in but which have to be performed. For example, studying a subject for an examination we are not really interested in might become an almost impossible task without the underlying drive of ‘performance anxiety’ or working with commitment on a day-to-day basis would not always be possible without the pressure of a certain degree of anxiety. In the same way, even the apparently simple task of making sure we catch a bus or a train would be jeopardised without the presence of anxiety.

These are useful or normal, ‘constructive’ forms of anxiety in the sense that they can be considered as functional for our wellbeing or even our survival. Such forms of anxiety come into play and exist in an intermediate zone between the ‘outer’ world and our personal, internal psychic world, making it easier for us to cope with the problems of day-to-day life and facilitating our adaptation to the environment. They can be seen as psychological factors that influence the growth and development of the personality, providing stimuli and a motivation to improve and increase our basic life skills.

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