Anxiety 101

Written by Jim Folk
Medically reviewed by Marilyn Folk, BScN.
Last updated May 15, 2021

anxiety 101

Our Anxiety 101 section gives you an overview of anxiety, anxiety disorder, its symptoms, causes, and what is required to overcome it.

The information in our Anxiety 101 section is based on our personal experience with anxiety disorder (all of us at have personally experienced and successfully overcome anxiety disorder) and on over 30 years of practical and professional experience helping people overcome issues with anxiety.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety can be defined as:

  • A state of uneasiness and apprehension, as about future uncertainties.[1]
  • A state of apprehension, uncertainty, and fear resulting from the anticipation of a real or imagined event, situation, or circumstance that we think might be threatening.[1]

Anxiety is a state of apprehension that results from anticipating something we think might be dangerous or unpleasant.

For example, if you are standing in the middle of the road and see a speeding car approaching that you think could hit you, imagining the car could hit you, and the harm it could cause creates a sense of danger that motivates you to take immediate protective action. Imagining being in harm's way creates a troubled state of mind. This troubled state of mind and sense of urgency to escape danger is anxiety.

Sensing danger so that you can get out of harm's way is part of the body's survival mechanism, which is designed to protect you. So even though anxiety can feel strong at times, it's an important part of your survival mechanism that keeps you safe…and alive.

In this regard, anxiety is our ally and shouldn’t be perceived as being something ‘bad’ or unwanted.

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What causes anxiety?

Anxiety is caused by apprehensive behavior!

Behavior can be defined as:

  • A way in which one conducts oneself,[2]
  • A way in which a person responds to a particular situation or circumstance,
  • The way in which a person thinks and acts.

Behavior is a way in which a person thinks and acts.

For example, if you think you'd like to eat a piece of chocolate cake, and then decide to go to the store and buy a chocolate cake, cut a piece, and eat it, all that occurred because of behavior.

Thoughts preceded a decision, and the decision motivated an action. In other words, we first think, decide, and then act. While sometimes it can seem like we act first, it’s not that we do but that our preceding thoughts and decisions happen so quickly, and often automatically, it SEEMS like our actions came first.

thoughts precede actions

In every case, we first think about and decide what to do BEFORE we make an action.[3][4]

You can demonstrate this by slowing down your actions. You’ll see that when you slow down your actions, every action you take is preceded by thoughts about it and a decision to deliberately act in a certain manner.

Thoughts and decisions precede willful actions even though those thoughts might be subconscious, automatic, or habituated!

Anxiety is caused in the same way. We first think about a situation or circumstance, determine to see if it’s dangerous, assess it to see how dangerous it is, and then decide to act accordingly.

For example, if we believe an impending situation or circumstance won’t cause us harm, we determine that it is harmless and behave accordingly. If we believe an impending situation or circumstance can harm us, however, we’ll most likely take some type of action to avoid the danger or prepare to deal with it. Nevertheless, whatever action we decide, it was first determined by what we thought about it and a decision about how to deal with it. So again, we first think, then decide, and then act. The combination of thinking, deciding, and acting is considered behavior. Since deciding is a part of thinking, behavior can be defined simply as: thinking and acting.

With regard to anxiety, we create a troubled state of mind by thinking about a particular situation or circumstance in an troubling (apprehensive) manner.

Apprehensive can be defined as:

  • Fearful that something bad, unpleasant, and/or harmful may happen.[5]

Whenever we think that something bad, unpleasant, and/or harmful might happen, we are behaving in an apprehensive manner. This type of behavior creates the state of anxiety.

For example, worry is apprehensive behavior that creates the state of anxiety.

Worry can be defined as:

  • Allowing one’s mind to dwell on difficult, troubling, and potentially bad, unpleasant, and/or harmful things.[1]

When we dwell on difficult, troubling, and harmful thoughts, such as imagining worst-case scenarios, that style of apprehensive behavior creates the state of being anxious (anxiety). Again, worry is an example of apprehensive behavior that creates the state of anxiety.

NOTE: There are many things that can make us FEEL anxious, such as a side effect of medication, and adverse reaction to a recreational drug, something in the environment, such as a loud noise, etc., but that doesn’t mean a person has to behave anxiously.

There can be a difference between FEELING anxious and behaving anxiously.

For more information, visit our "What Causes Anxiety" article.

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What happens when we’re anxious?

When we behave in an apprehensive manner, the body triggers our natural survival response, otherwise known as the stress response, fight or flight response, emergency response, or the fight, flight, or freeze response (since some people freeze when they are afraid like a “deer stuck in headlights”).[6][7][8]

The stress response causes the body to secrete stress hormones, which are stimulants, into the bloodstream where they travel to targeted spots to bring about specific physiological, psychological, and emotional changes that enhance the body’s ability to deal with a threat—to either fight with or flee from it—which is the reason the stress response is often referred to as the fight or flight response.

Anxiety 101 stress response illustration

The stress response is an integral part of the body’s survival mechanism. The body experiences a stress response whenever we perceive a threat so that the body is better equipped to deal with the threat: to either fight or flee.

The degree of stress response is directly proportional to the degree of perceived threat. For example, if we believe we are in mild danger, the body produces a low degree stress response, which causes mild body-wide changes. If we think we are in grave danger, the body produces a high-degree stress response, which causes dramatic body-wide changes.

While the stress response can feel overpowering at times, it’s intended to help us, not hurt us. So again, the stress response is our ally, not our enemy.

The stress response causes many changes in the body that can affect the body physically, psychologically, and emotionally. Therefore, when we behave apprehensively, we create the physiological, psychological, and emotional state of anxiety.

For more detailed information about the stress response and the many changes it can bring about, visit our “Stress Response” section. Recovery Support members can visit Chapter 3 in the Recovery Support area of our website. This information provides in-depth details about the stress response, the many changes it causes in the body, why it causes those changes, what specific changes occur, and how long these changes can last. And much more.

Suffice to say, behaving apprehensively activates the stress response. The stress response causes the same changes in every human body. This response is a vital and normal part of the body’s survival mechanism.

What are anxiety symptoms?

There are two types of anxiety symptoms:

  • Those that accompany an active stress response.
  • Those caused by hyperstimulation.

Symptoms caused by an active stress response

The stress response causes many physiological, psychological, and emotional changes that affect the body in many ways. Mental health care professionals call the sensations associated with these changes “symptoms of anxiety.”[7][8][9]

For instance, the stress response can quickly increase heart rate. This quickened heart rate can be experienced as a “racing heart” symptom. The stress response also causes a quickening in breathing, which can be experienced as “shortness of breath.” The stress response also causes a sudden increase in energy, tightening muscles, and heightens our senses, which can be felt as trembling, muscle tension, and sensory overload, all common “symptoms of anxiety.”

Therefore, these types of anxiety symptoms are the sensations that accompany the body-wide changes caused by the stress response. These types of symptoms subside when the active stress response ends and the body has had sufficient time to recover from the effects of an active stress response.

Symptoms caused by hyperstimulation

When stress responses occur infrequently, the body can recover relatively quickly from the physiological, psychological, and emotional changes the stress response brings about. When stress responses occur too frequently, however, the body has a more difficult time recovering, which can cause the body to remain in a state of semi stress response readiness.[9][10][11] We call this state, hyperstimulation since stress hormones are stimulants. Hyperstimulation is also often referred to as hyperarousal.

When the body becomes overly stressed and stimulated, it can exhibit symptoms of stress long after an active stress response has ended. These are also called anxiety symptoms.

We call them anxiety symptoms because behaving in an overly apprehensive manner is the main source of the stress that causes the body to trigger a stress response or to become chronically stressed and then symptomatic.

Anxiety symptoms are symptoms of stress and chronic stress caused by overly apprehensive behavior.

Are anxiety symptoms dangerous?

No, anxiety symptoms aren’t dangerous. They are merely symptoms associated with an active stress response or hyperstimulation (chronic stress). They disappear entirely when the active stress response has ended or when the body has recovered from hyperstimulation and its adverse effects.

Anxiety attack symptoms aren’t dangerous, either. They are merely symptoms associated with a high-degree stress response. For more information about anxiety attacks and anxiety attack symptoms, see our anxiety attacks symptoms section.

Even though anxiety symptoms aren’t dangerous, they can be powerful and numerous. Typically, the type, number, intensity, duration, and frequency of symptoms is directly proportional to the degree of fear and resulting stress response. Furthermore, the type, number, intensity, duration, and frequency of symptoms is also directly proportional to the degree of hyperstimulation. As the degree of the fear or hyperstimulation increase, so too does the degree of symptoms.

Even though anxiety symptoms can be powerful (they are supposed to be to motivate you into immediate action), they are merely symptoms of stress and needn't be a cause for concern. To eliminate anxiety symptoms, however, we need to end the active stress response, or reduce stress and give the body sufficient time to recover from hyperstimulation. As the body recovers from an active stress response or hyperstimulation, it stops exhibiting symptoms.

For more information about eliminating anxiety symptoms, see the upcoming section entitled “Anxiety Recovery 101."

For more information about the many anxiety symptoms, including detailed information about each symptom, see our anxiety symptoms section. Or, Recovery Support members can visit the Symptoms section (chapter 9) in the Recovery Support area for more in-depth information about each anxiety symptom.

Click on the corresponding link for more detailed information about the “Stress Response” or “Hyperstimulation”.

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What is an anxiety attack?

Since anxiety can be experienced in a wide range of degrees – from low to maximum - an anxiety attack is simply an episode of high-degree anxiety that is accompanied by a high-degree stress response. These high-degree episodes can be intense experiences since stress hormones are powerful stimulants. Experiencing high-degree fear and stress responses are some of the most acute physiological, psychological, and emotional experiences the body can experience. It’s little wonder why anxiety attacks can feel so strong and can produce so many anxiety attack symptoms.

Anxiety attacks and panic attacks are not the same. The main differences are that an anxiety attack has mild symptoms, is short to long in duration, and the symptoms come on gradually whereas a panic attack has intense symptoms, is short in duration, and symptoms come on suddenly. Overall, an anxiety attack is mild and a panic attack is severe.

This difference is important; however, as the DSM-5, The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), published by the American Psychiatric Association (APA), uses panic attack as a “clinical term” used to define symptoms and determine treatment options whereas anxiety attack is not used in a clinical manner.[14] The difference can impact treatment by a mental health professional.

As we mentioned previously, the degree of anxiety is directly proportional to the degree of perceived danger. And the degree of stress response is directly proportional to the degree of anxiety.

So, once again, an anxiety attack is merely an episode of high-degree anxiety that is accompanied by a high-degree stress response and resulting symptoms.

What is anxiety disorder?

Everyone experiences anxiety from time to time. This is normal. Anxiety is said to become a disorder when it interferes with a normal lifestyle.

For example, normal anxiety becomes a disorder when we worry so much that we feel ill or have a panic attack that prevents us from engaging in normal activities. Or, when we worry so much that the body exhibits symptoms, which we become concerned about. Or, when we worry about our anxiety symptoms so much that it restricts our normal way of life and becomes all consuming.

These are just three examples of many, many ways behaving apprehensively and its stress response consequences can interfere with a normal lifestyle.

Therefore, Anxiety Disorder is a term mental health professionals use to describe anxiety that interferes with a normal lifestyle. Keep in mind that this term should not be confused with a medical diagnosis as this term is merely used as a way of categorizing people who struggle with problematic anxiety.

Again, the term anxiety disorder should not be confused with a medical term as anxiety is not a medical condition but a mental health condition that can cause lifestyle impairment.

What causes anxiety disorder?

Overly apprehensive behavior, which causes issues with anxiety, is the cause of anxiety disorder. For example, if being anxious stops you from engaging in a normal lifestyle activity, this is said to be anxiety disorder. Or, if your anxiety symptoms prevent you from participating in a normal activity, this is also said to be an anxiety disorder.

Again, keep in mind that anxiety disorder should NOT be perceived as having a medical condition…even though the body can exhibit physiological symptoms. The term "anxiety disorder" simply means when anxiety or its symptoms and feelings disrupt a normal lifestyle.  "Anxiety Disorder" is a category name and not the name of a medical condition.

This is not to suggest that anxiety disorder can't cause intense, unusual, and disturbing symptoms, which can cause significant impairment because it can!

For example, high-degree anxiety, such as a panic attack, can cause profound anxiety attack symptoms. Moreover, when the body experiences high-degree hyperstimulation, it can cause significant discomfort physically, mentally, and emotionally. Sometimes the impairment can be so profound that significant lifestyle impairment occurs.

Nevertheless, in spite of the impairment anxiety disorder and its symptoms can cause, anxiety disorder can be successfully overcome, which we talk about next in our Anxiety Recovery 101 section.

Go To Anxiety Recovery 101

The combination of good self-help information and working with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist, coach, or counselor is the most effective way to address anxiety and its many symptoms. Until the core causes of anxiety are addressed – which we call the underlying factors of anxiety – a struggle with anxiety unwellness can return again and again. Dealing with the underlying factors of anxiety is the best way to address problematic anxiety.

Additional Resources

Return to our Anxiety Articles page. Information, support, and therapy for anxiety disorder and its symptoms, including Anxiety 101.



2. Oxford Living Dictionary,

3. Lafattuta, Kristin, et al. "How Do Thoughts, Emotions, and Decisions Align? A New Way to Examine Theory of Mind in Middle Childhood and Beyond." Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, Sept. 2016.

4. Burns, David D. The Feeling Good Handbook. Plume, 1999.

5. Cambridge Dictionary.

6. Selye H. Endocrine reactions during stress. Anesthesia & Analgesia. 1956;35:182–193. [PubMed]

7. "Understanding the Stress Response - Harvard Health." Harvard Health. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 May 2016.

8. "The Physiology of Stress: Cortisol and the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis." DUJS Online. N.p., 03 Feb. 2011. Web. 19 May 2016.

9. Justice, Nicholas J., et al. “Posttraumatic Stress Disorder-Like Induction Elevates β-Amyloid Levels, Which Directly Activates Corticotropin-Releasing Factor Neurons to Exacerbate Stress Responses.” Journal of Neuroscience, Society for Neuroscience, 11 Feb. 2015.

10. Teixeira, Renata Roland, et al. “Chronic Stress Induces a Hyporeactivity of the Autonomic Nervous System in Response to Acute Mental Stressor and Impairs Cognitive Performance in Business Executives.” Current Neurology and Neuroscience Reports., U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2015.

11. Yaribeygi, Habib, et al. “The Impact of Stress on Body Function: A Review.” EXCLI Journal, Leibniz Research Centre for Working Environment and Human Factors, 2017.