We have all experienced significant anxiety at one time or another, although perhaps not severe enough to warrant a diagnosis by a professional. Anxiety is a danger or an alert signal. The physiological arousal we
experience as anxiety is directly related to fear of harm. When we are faced with a threat to our physical well-being that can result in either serious physical harm or death, we respond psychologically and
physically. This response has been called the "fight or flight" response because it activates us to either defend ourselves, or to run away and escape injury. In a life threatening crisis, this fight or
flight response can save our lives.
In our civilized world, we don't encounter genuine threats to our physical safety everyday (unless you count driving in rush hour traffic). Instead, we are faced with problems that complicate our lives. These
problems do pose a threat, but usually it is not a physical threat. We may be faced with losing a job, or having our marriage break-up, or maybe our children might fail in school. These may be threats to our
well-being, but have more of a psychological impact, than a physical impact. These psychological threats trigger a mild version of the fight or flight response, that we call anxiety. (Except in a panic disorder,
when the response is very immediate and severe).
Anxiety alerts us to a problem, and motivates us to try to resolve the problem, because we want the anxiety to go away. If we never felt anxious about anything, we would have little motivation to respond to problems, until we were faced with a genuine crisis. Normal anxiety is not a sign of a psychological disturbance, because we all experience it, and it helps us manage out lives by alerting us to problems requiring a response. Anxiety disorders develop when we experience severe anxiety in response to minor or common problems, or when the anxiety never goes away, and actually interferes with our problem solving.
Anxiety problems are very common. In fact, in the United States, more people visit their physician for anxiety than for coughs and colds. The prevalence of anxiety disorders varies by type, ranging from 1% of the
population for some disorders, to as high as 58% of combat veterans experiencing post traumatic stress to some degree. The use of medications for anxiety management is very common, but not effective without
psychotherapy. In fact, many anti-anxiety medications produce dependency, and the withdrawal symptoms are often similar to anxiety symptoms. These medications control the symptoms without eliminating the cause for
the problem. Psychological treatment focuses on reducing the inappropriate anxiety response, so medication is not necessary.