Anxiety, Fears & Phobias

Anxiety, fears and phobias are not only human traits but can apply equally to our pet dogs and other animals.

Anxiety may be described as an irrational feeling of worry, panic, dread, nervousness or apprehension about an actual OR imaginary situation, person or event. Stress and fear are often catalysts. A state of dysphoria often impairing physical and/or psychological functioning may also exist. Mild anxiety, however, is not necessarily a bad thing as this may enhance performance, for example, in an exam, a sporting event or public speaking. Anxiety lies on a continuum from normal, even desirable, to a severe disruption to daily life.

Evolutionary biology suggests that anxiety is learned and that fear is innate. This makes sense – if our ancestors were not fearful of lions on the African savanna we may not be here today! Behavioural theories of anxiety acquisition are based on the nurture paradigm: we learn to be anxious; we are not born that way. However, research tells us that a predisposition for neuroticism may lead to general, or ‘free floating’, anxiety and that a neurotic trait may be inherited. This type of anxiety can have a profound effect on one’s wellbeing and anxious periods can last for days potentially leading to a mixed anxiety and depression disorder (MAD). Psychologists may not regard neuroticism as the same thing as behaving in a neurotic way.  

Anxiety may be internal or external. For example we may feel anxious about a meeting (external), triggering a belief that we are not capable or have the necessary ability or knowledge to participate (internal). We may feel anxious about the past, present or future or this may present more generally to include all three, leading to the ‘free floating’ condition described above. Some sufferers report sleeplessness along with anxiety dreams – the latter, however, may help to achieve a state of mental homeostasis at least in the short term.

A precise definition is not always agreed; clinicians may differ from sufferers in this respect. The sufferer is often unaware of the cause of their condition. Other emotions may present, such as depression, malaise, sadness, anger, shame, guilt. Physical responses may also present in the form of displacement behaviours, for example, avoidance, freezing, refusing to cooperate, hostility, talking excitedly, not talking at all, and invariably autonomous reactions, for example, palpitations, sweating, shaking, dizziness, hyper-ventilating, headache and increased blood pressure.

There is a distinction between fear and anxiety; fear is taken to refer to feelings of apprehension about ACTUAL, tangible or realistic dangers. Returning to our ‘lion’ analogy, the fear emotion needs to be present at birth. The wildebeest calf, for example, simply does not have time to LEARN to be fearful! Fearfulness is generally accepted to be a dominant feature of anxiety.

A strong, out of control, irrational fear of something may elevate to a phobia. Phobias can have a debilitating effect on one’s life often affecting day-to-day living. As with anxiety and fear it will fall somewhere on a continuum – for example a fear of spiders (arachnophobia) may lead to the sufferer checking every room before entering! A fear of open spaces (agoraphobia) will invariable mean the sufferer is housebound; an avoidance behaviour. Phobias can include objects (e.g. trains), situations (e.g. open spaces, meeting people (a social phobia)), animals or phenomena (e.g. thunderstorms).

The English word ‘anxiety’ derives from the Greek ‘angh‘, making its way into the German language as ‘angst‘ – anguish, worry. It was in a ground-breaking paper that the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud coined the word ‘Angstneurose‘ – anxiety neurosis, as opposed to other forms of nervous illness or, indeed, other physiological illnesses. Of course Freud wrote in German and it was James Strachey who translated the paper into English. Strachey was acutely aware of the potential pitfalls of incorrectly translating the word ‘angst’, for example, fear, fright, alarm – however, the word ‘anxiety’ stuck and is now the accepted translation.

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