What is anxiety?

Anxiety: A Very Short Introduction - Daniel Freeman, Jason Freeman 2012

What is anxiety?

You know those days when you’ve got the mean reds … the blues are because you’re getting fat or maybe it’s been raining too long. You’re sad, that’s all. But the mean reds are horrible. You’re afraid and you sweat like hell, but you don’t know what you’re afraid of. Except something bad is going to happen, only you don’t know what it is.

Holly Golightly in Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Anxiety doesn’t ever go away. There’s not suddenly a sun-lit plateau where you’re never anxious about anything — it just takes different shapes and forms.

Michael Palin

Holly Golightly’s ’mean reds’ may be horrible, but they are also absolutely normal. No one goes through life without experiencing anxiety from time to time — perhaps before taking a flight, giving a speech, or meeting new people. And though that anxiety-free sun-lit plateau may sound appealing, it’s probably just as well that we won’t reach it. As we’ll see, anxiety isn’t merely normal, it is often essential.

On the other hand, for large — and perhaps increasing — numbers of people, anxiety is a major problem. The poet W. H. Auden published The Age of Anxiety in 1947. That now looks more like a remarkable feat of prophecy than the comment on post-war society Auden intended. The main mental health survey in the United States, for example, indicated that 18% of adults had experienced an anxiety disorder of some type in the previous 12 months. This figure refers only to anxiety that is sufficiently severe to warrant a medical diagnosis. Even so, it suggests that approximately 40 million adults in the US alone are suffering from clinical levels of anxiety — an extraordinary statistic.

A still greater number of people are struggling with levels of anxiety that don’t meet the criteria for a full-blown disorder. The UK’s Mental Health Foundation reported that 37% of adults felt more frightened and anxious than they had in the past. More than three-quarters of those surveyed stated that the world had become a more frightening place over the previous ten years. And almost one-third (29%) admitted that anxiety and fear had driven them to change the way they behaved, preventing them from doing things they wished they could have done.

At the other end of the scale, everyday anxiety is as natural — and beneficial — as any other emotion. We all know what it means to feel anxious; we have first-hand experience, sometimes on a regular basis. If we asked you to jot down five words to describe anxiety, doubtless you wouldn’t need long to ponder.