Anxiety is an emotion - What is anxiety?

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

Anxiety is an emotion
What is anxiety?

Theories concerning anxiety abound, but scientists agree that it is an emotion. Indeed, fear is usually regarded as one of the five basic emotions, alongside sadness, happiness, anger, and disgust. (As we’ll see in a moment, the terms ’anxiety’ and ’fear’ are generally used synonymously.) By basic, we mean the first to develop in humans, usually within the first six months after birth.

This is all well and good, but what exactly do we mean by the term ’emotion’? The concept is a contested one, but there is general agreement that emotions are complex phenomena, typically affecting our thoughts, our bodies, and our behaviour. There is evidence that each of the basic emotions involves a distinct facial expression, and to some degree a different bodily (or physiological) reaction. When we become aware of one or more of these changes, we are feeling an emotion.

Current psychological thinking has coalesced around the idea that emotions are strong, conscious feelings triggered by our assessment — or appraisal — of a particular event or situation. That appraisal, which may be conscious or unconscious, determines which emotion we feel. For instance, if we sense success, we are happy. If we detect that we have been wronged or thwarted, we experience anger. And if we think that we’re in danger, we feel fear.

But why do we need emotions? Wouldn’t life be much more pleasant if we weren’t susceptible to fear, or sadness, or disgust? In fact, without them, our lives would almost certainly be a great deal shorter. Emotions help us survive, thrive, and pass on our genes. As Paul Ekman, a leading psychologist of emotions, puts it, they have ’evolved through their adaptive value in dealing with fundamental life-tasks’. So, for example, the happiness our ancestors felt after developing a useful tool encouraged them to repeat the experience; their sadness when separated from friends and loved ones helped them preserve crucial social ties; and their anxiety helped ensure they didn’t end up as some wild animal’s meal.

Psychologists define emotional states in terms of how long they last. Research suggests that initial physiological reactions — which include facial expressions — generally last just a few seconds. An emotion lasts anywhere from seconds to hours. If it goes on for longer, it’s referred to as mood; and if we have a tendency to react in this way, it’s part of our personality.

Emotions are so important to us that it’s unsurprising that we are often extremely successful at decoding other people’s feelings. For example, research by Rainer Banse and Klaus Scherer has shown that people are adept at recognizing emotions simply by listening to someone’s tone of voice rather than what is actually said. (Banse and Scherer instructed actors to pronounce a nonsensical phrase, thus preventing participants from guessing the emotion from the meaning of the words used.)

Other studies have revealed that individuals are often able to decode emotions on the basis of touch. A team of researchers in the US separated participants into pairs, and seated each pair at a table divided by a black curtain. One of the pair then attempted to convey a series of emotions — anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, surprise, sympathy, embarrassment, love, envy, pride, and gratitude — purely by touching the other’s arm. Those doing the touching tended to use similar techniques to communicate particular emotions: stroking to suggest love, for example, or trembling to indicate fear. And the participants guessing which emotions were being communicated were often remarkably successful in their judgements. So, if we don’t know how the people around us are feeling, we may simply need to pay a little more attention to the signals they are almost inevitably sending out.