Anxiety is one of the most common human experiences and is related to different elements of psychic, biological and social order. Despite being a common experience, anxiety can easily become an important condition of suffering. Likewise, it is an experience that is often confused with others (such as stress, anguish or fear), which also generate discomfort.

Ironically, the reasons why anxiety is generated; or rather, not knowing those reasons, is one of the triggers of anxiety. Next we will review different definitions of anxiety, and its relationship to other similar concepts, to finally offer an answer to the following question: is it normal to have anxiety for no reason? Let’s see.

Anxiety, fear, stress or distress?

Since the beginning of the 20th century, anxiety has been one of the main topics of study in psychology and related areas such as medicine and physiology. The latter has generated the problem of accurately defining “anxiety” , and from there to address it adequately. Specifically in psychology, its different theoretical currents usually face contradictions and overlaps with which anxiety has ended up being mixed with anguish, stress, fear, tension, and others.

In fact, in the diagnostic manuals of classification of mental disorders, and in their translations, anxiety has often been mixed with the concepts of anguish, stress or fear , through which different manifestations, both psychic and physical, are grouped together.

From distress to anxiety

The psychologists Sierra, Ortega and Zubeidat (2003) have carried out a theoretical study where they invite us to reflect on this topic, and they tell us that in some of the most classic definitions, the concept of “anguish” had been related to the predominance of physical reactions: the paralysis, the awe and the sharpness at the moment of capturing the causing phenomenon . Contrary to “anxiety”, which had been defined by the predominance of psychological symptoms: the sensation of suffocation, danger or shock; accompanied by the rush to find effective solutions to the sensation of threat.

On the latter, the authors tell us, Sigmund Freud had already proposed the German term “Angst” to refer to physiological activation at the beginning of the 20th century. This last concept was translated into English as “Anxiety”, and in Spanish it was doubly translated into “anguish” and “anxiety”.

Anxiety is currently defined as a response that generates psychological tension accompanied by a somatic correlate , which is not attributable to real dangers, but which presents itself as a persistent and diffuse state close to panic. It is related to future dangers, which are often indefinable and unpredictable (Sierra, Ortega and Zubeidat, 2003). In this sense, anxiety tends to be paralyzing, both due to hyperactivity and lack of reaction.

It is an experience different from fear, because fear is presented before present, defined and localized stimuli, so it is an experience that has a rational explanation, and tends to activate rather than paralyze. In the same sense, anguish has been closely related to fear, because it is caused by a clearly identifiable stimulus . In both cases the person has a clear representation of the stimuli or situations that generate them.

From Anxiety to Stress

Finally we have encountered the problem of differentiating between anxiety and stress. Some authors suggest that the latter concept has come to replace anxiety, both in research and in interventions. Others believe that stress is now the term that refers to the physiological response, and anxiety is what is related to the subjective response. The term stress is perhaps the most difficult to define at present, as it has recently been used almost indiscriminately by many areas of study.

In any case, those who study it usually agree that stress is an experience related to important changes in the person’s environment ; and to feelings of frustration, boredom or lack of control. It is then an adaptive process that triggers different emotions and that allows us to relate to the environment, as well as to face its demands. Nevertheless, it is an experience that can also be generalized and that refers to the tensions that our societies are currently going through.

Anxiety for no reason?

If we summarize all of the above, we can see that feeling anxiety for no apparent reason is not only normal, but is a condition of the experience of anxiety itself. It is a situation that has a psychological origin and a physical correlation , so this lack can also be a target of therapeutic work.

In this sense, and given that anxiety has recently been studied in relation to the physical correlate, there is an important part of psychology and medicine that has addressed it as a multi-causal phenomenon, where different triggering events can be identified. Both psychological and social and physiological, for example, from traumatic events to frequent consumption of psychotropic substances .

If it’s normal, is it avoidable?

As we have seen, there are experiences of discomfort that are part of human beings and can be adaptive, both physically and psychologically. These are discomforts that manifest themselves at a psychic and somatic level , but which are not isolated, but rather in permanent connection with the demands and characteristics of the environment.

The problem is when these discomforts no longer act as adaptive or stabilizing mechanisms, but present themselves to virtually all circumstances around us, including circumstances without concrete reality. This is a problem because, if the reason for the discomfort has to do with everything around us (even the most everyday and intimate), it easily generates the feeling that it has no end. In other words, it becomes generalised.

This is when anxiety has become cyclical, which can cause permanent or repetitive patterns of suffering , as well as affect our daily activity, our relationships and our life processes.

In short, anxiety can be a functional reaction of our organism, it can keep us alert to different stimulations, whether positive or negative. But, if it becomes a very frequent experience , caused by a diffuse perception of danger before the most daily situations, then it can generate an important suffering. However, this is a type of suffering that is avoidable and controllable.

One of the first things that must be done to counteract this is precisely to attend to this feeling (psychological and physiological) of generalised threat, as well as to explore the apparent lack of motives that generate it.

Bibliographic references:

  • Sierra, J. C., Ortega, V. and Zubeidat, I. (2003). Anxiety, distress and stress: three concepts to differentiate. Revista Mal-estar E Subjetividade, 3(1): 10-59.