The Many Faces of Anxiety and Why It Can Be a Friend

The Many Faces of Anxiety and Why It Can Be a Friend
Dr. Mary C. Lamia Psychologist Kentfield, California

Dr. Mary Lamia’s career-long passion for encouraging emotional awareness in adults, adolescents, and pre-teens is exemplified by her books. She is the author of What Motivates Getting Things Done: Procrastination, Emotions, and Success; Emotions! Making Sense of Your Feelings; and Understanding Myself: A Kid’s Guide to... more

The designation of emotions as positive or negative has little to do with their value, but instead involves how they motivate us by the way they make us feel. Nevertheless, there are undoubtedly times when normal anxiety has led you to feel a bit unhinged. At excessive levels, anxiety places you on high alert regarding a perceived current or future threat. As a result, you may attribute feeling its effects to having some kind of psychological condition—becoming anxious that your anxiety means something is really wrong with you. The psychological and physiological effects of anxiety can be so unpleasant we may disregard that it has an important evolutionary function to protect us.

What actually is anxiety? From a biological perspective, anxiety is an emotional state that involves prolonged muscular tenseness and anticipatory thoughts (cognitions) that serve to regulate attention, memory, and reasoning.[i]  These physiological changes and anticipatory thoughts prepare you to take action. Although the emotional message conveyed by anxiety is vague, the cognitions that arise with it attempt to clue you in to what it is trying to tell you. However, in the case of anxiety your imagination can go wild and this may result in failing to recognize that anxiety can be your friend: It is an emotion that tells you to pay attention to something, although you may misinterpret the message it is trying to convey.

Commonly, the references people make to anxiety are indistinguishable from how we describe the emotion of fear. The distinction between fear and anxiety can be confusing since in certain anxiety disorders, particularly phobias, the focus is specific and avoidance behaviors are present.[ii] And although phobias are considered to be an anxiety disorder we think of a phobia in terms of something that is feared, be it insects, enclosed spaces, heights, or contamination. Additionally, fears of the unknown, a fear of death, contamination fear, a fear of flying, catastrophic fear, a fear of failure, or a fear of success are all commonly noted fears yet they are actually experienced as anxiety.  

While fear and anxiety are related, they also differ in some significant ways. As a primary emotion, fear is activated in response to an imminent threat from a known source that immediately leads to an urge to defend yourself.[iii] You would likely experience fear, for example, if while driving you suddenly see another car careening out of control toward you. In contrast to fear, anxiety is a response to an unknown threat or to something that is not specifically threatening.[iv] Distinguished from the imminent quality of fear, anxiety is a longer-lasting state of nervousness and apprehension that puts you on alert to a future threat or to the possibility of danger, such as being vigilant while driving because you anticipate there are going to be careless drivers on the road. Most importantly, whereas fear is a primary emotion, anxiety represents a blend of emotions in which fear is dominant.[v]

The commingling of other emotions, along with fear, makes anxiety a response to a vague, nonspecific threat, as opposed to a fear response where the source is known and avoidance of danger is required immediately.[vi] Along with fear, the other emotions your brain may activate to produce anxiety may include, for example, distress, shame, anger, disgust, and excitement. Let’s take a look at some of the various flavors of anxiety and how you might experience them.

If you have anxiety about having many things to get done, or little time to do them, the anxiety you feel likely involves a coalescence of fear and distress. Generally, distress itself is felt as agitation, annoyance, or tension—a constant and unpleasant sensation that may arise from a variety of internal and external sources. When you are distressed, you are motivated to anticipate what’s going to go wrong and then try to solve the problem effectually.[vii] Feeling stressed or “stressed out” is also the result of distress that has been activated along with fear.[viii] The concept of stress itself encompasses both positive and negative conditions that can impact one’s psychological and physical well-being. Current research suggests that how one responds to stress determines whether or not it is harmful.[ix] Your body is preparing you for action, so the tension you feel serves you best if it is directed towards action that will alleviate the stress. Otherwise, if you feel distress and become further distressed because of how you are feeling, the emotion becomes amplified and you may see it as a pathological condition.

Fear may also comingle with the emotion of excitement which often leads one to feel aroused or stimulated. You may have experienced that effect of anxiety on an amusement park ride, while engaged in a challenging sport, or when you anticipated seeing someone who is a romantic interest.

When disgust is activated along with, or in response to fear the melding produces disgust anxiety. Disgust by itself is highly motivating. At a basic level, disgust is a rejection response to something that tastes bad or just doesn’t sit well. Disgust causes you to experience something as revolting or repulsive—wanting to expel or avoid it. This emotional response is designed to protect you by making you want to get rid of, or distance yourself from, whatever is offensive. 

When your brain adds disgust to fear, you become anxious about encountering something disgusting, or you may experience it as a fear of being disgusting—that is, that someone will perceive you or something associated with you as disgusting. Thus, in an effort to minimize the possibility of repelling another person, you will be motivated to do something about it. 

If you are grumpy and agitated, your unique blend of anxiety may include anger along with fear. In this case, people commonly experience agitation, an agitated depression, or an angry urgency—they become such a nervous grouch—and may unnecessarily lash out at others around them for no valid reason. 

When shame co-assembles with fear to produce shame anxiety, the resulting emotional mix can be a powerful motivating force. Shame anxiety is experienced as a fear that exposure is imminent and humiliation will soon follow.[x] Experiencing this intense emotion signals that action must be taken at once to diminish its intensity. Thus, if you are compelled, or eventually compelled, to do something or get something done in order to get rid of the effects of shame anxiety, then the combination of emotions has served its evolutionary purpose. Anticipating a negative evaluation or judgment from yourself or others, for example, can focus your attention on accurately and efficiently completing whatever it is you need to get done.

Generally speaking, when a particular stimulus—a situation or event—triggers an emotion, on a biological level it is a momentary episode. So you may wonder why some emotions, like anxiety, can hang on so long. This is due in part because whenever an emotion is activated, emotional memories and cognitions arise that are based on prior experiences. The impact of these prior experiences may serve to either extend or magnify the duration of the emotion.[xi] Therefore, an infant will not experience anxiety in situations that might activate anxiety in an adult, such as hearing an approaching siren. Yet, as children grow up, they learn from experiencing an emotional response to a stimulus or situation. Thereafter, their brain activates a specific emotional response that it associates with a stimulus, event, or situation. Such links reside in an array of emotional memories stored in the brain. At the same time that the emotion is activated, we also will automatically express or inhibit an emotion based on our emotional memories and what we’ve learned from our culture or environment about what is acceptable or appropriate for expressing the emotion. As well, based on their particular environment or culture, children learn what’s beneficial, permissible, or unacceptable in the way the emotion is expressed. These memories and learned responses to emotion expression are why one person may not exhibit anxiety about something while another person will become highly anxious.

Highly effective business and sales professionals use their anxiety to enhance productivity, attention, and task completion. At optimal levels, anxiety can put you on top of your game because it sharpens your focus, helps you to think on your feet, and energizes you. At such times people are driven and what drives them is their friend: anxiety. Some sales people maintain that a successful day does not necessarily relieve anxiety because the emotion is triggered again by the thought that their success might end. Therefore, they are subsequently motivated to pursue other avenues for sales that lead to maintaining their success.

Granted, there are times when anxiety does not seem to be a healthy or welcome friend and it might even lead you astray--like when you interpret that vague sense of angst as needing a drink, a pill, or an inappropriate sexual partner. But your response to anxiety is not the fault of the emotion itself. The emotion is simply alerting you to something, but your interpretation of exactly what that is happens to be based upon your resulting thoughts and feelings. Similarly, if you are in a country where you do not understand the language and ask someone for directions to a specific place, you might have a difficult time grasping the details beyond the hand signal he provides about which way to walk. Such is the language of emotion. It gives you a vague direction because it evokes feelings and thoughts, but beyond that the interpretation is up to you.

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[i]. Phan Luu, Don M.Tucker, and Douglas Derryberry, “Anxiety and the Motivational Basis of  Working Memory,” Cognitive Therapy and Research 22 no. 6 (1998): 577.

[ii]. American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, 5th ed. (Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Publishing, 2013), 189-234.

[iii]. Izard, et al., “Self-Organization of Discrete Emotions,” 19; Arne Öhman, “Fear and anxiety: Overlaps and Dissociations,” in Handbook of emotions, ed. Marc D. Lewis, Jeannette M. Haviland-Jones, and Lisa Feldman Barrett (New York: The Guilford Press, 2010), 709-29.

[iv]. Peter J. Lang, Michael Davis, and Arne Ohman, A. “Fear and Anxiety: Animal Models and Human Cognitive Psychophysiology,” Journal of Affective Disorders 61, no. 3 (2000): 137-159. doi: 10.1016/S0165-0327(00)00343-8.

[v]. Izard, Human Emotions, 93.

[vi]. Izard, Human Emotions, 378.

[vii]. Silvan S. Tomkins, “The Quest for Primary Motives: Biography and Autobiography of an Idea,” in Exploring Affect: The Selected Writings of Silvan S. Tomkins, ed. Virginia Demos (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 47.

[viii]. Donald Nathanson, Shame and Pride, 99.

[ix]. Keller, Abiola Keller, Kristin Litzelman, Lauren E. Wisk, L.E.; Torsheika Maddox, Erika Cheng, Paul Cresswell, and Whitney Witt, “Does the Perception that Stress Affects Health Matter? The Association with Health and Mortality,” Health Psychology 31, no. 5 (2012): 677, doi: 10.1037/a0026743.

[x]. Leon Wurmser, “Shame: The veiled companion of narcissism,” in The Many Faces of Shame, ed. Donald Nathanson (New York: Guilford Press, 1987), 68.

[xi]. Silvan S. Tomkins, “The Quest for Primary Motives: Biography and Autobiography of an Idea,” in Exploring Affect: The Selected Writings of Silvan S. Tomkins, ed. Virginia Demos (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 57-58.