Anxiety 101 – What actually is anxiety?

Anxiety, Therapy

Stress and anxiety are very closely linked, in more ways than one. In fact, exactly how they relate to each other can be confusing!

To understand anxiety, first you need to understand stress and stress-related symptoms.

Stress can lead to many different symptoms, some psychological and some physical. The range of symptoms is huge and varied. Some of these symptoms occur for only a short time period; others seem to start after a prolonged period of stress and may be chronic in nature.

Crucially, everyone seems to experience different symptoms of stress.  I didn’t feel ‘stressed’ at all but experienced multiple physical health symptoms; some other people just feel ‘stressed out’; others experience various psychological symptoms (e.g. anxiety attacks or panic attacks); and some notice practically nothing at all.

To see the extraordinary range of possible symptoms of stress, see a long (but not exhaustive) symptoms list in my free download “Overcome anxiety, stress & related symptoms – by changing how your mind works”.

We don’t yet fully understand stress, and we don’t yet know exactly how it causes all of these symptoms – but many effective approaches exist for treating these issues.

(If you want a more detailed understanding of exactly what stress is, see my article “What actually is stress?”)


So how does anxiety fit in?

Sometimes “anxiety” simply describes feelings or emotions of anxiousness, or alternatively, anxious thoughts about the future. These thoughts and feelings might be specific (thinking about the exam that’s coming up on Friday), or they might be vague and occurring for no obvious reason.

These can be normal, healthy human thoughts and emotions. But they also appear in lists of stress-related symptoms, and particularly if they become excessive, they may be considered a stress-related problem.

But remember, stress causes different symptoms in different people, so you may or may not have anxious thoughts and feelings, even if you have other stress-related problems.


But sometimes it’s a little bit more complicated – “anxiety” might also refer to something called “anxiety disorders”.

Dozens of physical and mental symptoms have been categorised into several common “Anxiety disorders”. Practically all of these symptoms can also be considered stress-related.


“Anxiety disorders” include:

  • GAD – Generalised anxiety disorder
  • Social phobia
  • Panic disorder (panic attacks)
  • Agoraphobia
  • Phobias
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

So anxiety disorders could be thought of as “sub-lists” of stress-related symptoms: They’re shorter, more specific lists of symptoms, and if a person has enough of the symptoms on one of those sub-lists, they can be given the appropriate label (“you have GAD”, or “Social phobia”, or “panic disorder”).


It’s important to understand that, as I mentioned previously regarding stress – everyone experiences different symptoms. A person doesn’t have every symptom on the GAD list to be diagnosed with GAD: Instead, they have some of the symptoms on the GAD list; enough to be categorised as having GAD.

So it’s important to note that while anxious feelings and/or thoughts may be listed under an anxiety disorder, you might not have anxious feelings or thoughts at all – but you might have most of the other symptoms of that anxiety disorder. In this situation, you might be said to have an anxiety disorder even though you don’t feel anxious and you don’t have anxious thoughts.


You might be starting to see that there’s a very blurry line between stress and anxiety. The symptoms we call stress-related also appear on lists of anxiety disorders, and thoughts and feelings of anxiety can be considered stress-related symptoms.

We often can’t definitively say whether a symptom is caused by stress or caused by anxiety. For example, “feelings of restlessness” is one of the symptoms that constitute Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) – and it can also be the result of a stress response (where neurological and/or hormonal changes could lead to a feeling of restlessness).


To get around this problem I often use the term “stress or anxiety symptoms” to refer to symptoms linked to stress and anxiety collectively.


Are you confused yet?

Sorry, there’s more:

As I explain in “What actually is stress?”, when most people say ‘stress’, they’re using it as a kind of non-specific ‘filler word’ to describe various phenomena that we don’t yet fully understand. It follows that many people are told they have “stress”, because it’s such an ambiguous term and there are so many symptoms associated with it.

And seeing as “anxiety” overlaps so much with stress, they could quite easily also be told they have “anxiety”, another pretty ambiguous word.


Furthermore, seeing as anxiety disorders are basically lists of symptoms that can all be said to be stress-related, it’s arguably not very much more useful to say that someone has “GAD” or “social phobia” than to just say they have “stress”, “anxiety”, or “stress and anxiety”!


What’s the conclusion?

I’m sure I’ve confused you enough now. Here’s the conclusion:

  • Usually you can use “stress” and “anxiety” interchangeably. They both refer to basically the same set of symptoms, with similar underlying causes.
  • Whether you have stress, anxiety, a specific anxiety disorder, anxious thoughts or feelings, or all of the above: These things are all related, they all have a similar cause, and they are all best treated by tackling that underlying cause.

Get my free download Overcome anxiety & stress by changing how your mind works to start your treatment immediately.

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