What Is Anxiety?

Anxiety is a normal reaction to stressful situations. But in some cases, it becomes excessive and can cause sufferers to dread everyday situations.

This type of steady, all-over anxiety is called Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Other anxiety-related disorders include panic attacks—severe episodes of anxiety which happen in response to specific triggers—and obsessive-compulsive disorder, which is marked by persistent intrusive thoughts or compulsions to carry out specific behaviors (such as hand-washing).

Anxiety so frequently co-occurs with depression that the two are thought to be twin faces of one disorder. Like depression, it strikes twice as many females as males.

Generally, anxiety arises first, often during childhood. Evidence suggests that both biology and environment can contribute to the disorder. Some people may have a genetic predisposition to anxiety; however, this does not make development of the condition inevitable. Early traumatic experiences can also reset the body’s normal fear-processing system so that it is hyper-reactive to stress.

The exaggerated worries and expectations of negative outcomes in unknown situations that typify anxiety are often accompanied by physical symptoms. These include muscle tension, headaches, stomach cramps, and frequent urination. Behavioral therapies, with or without medication to control symptoms, have proved highly effective against anxiety, especially in children.

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My patient never returned. Her father called four days later, delighted to report that I had “worked a miracle.” Yet I see what happened as a failure on my part.