What is Anxiety?

Around a third of the population is affected with a form of anxiety. However, a large number of these people are not treated. This is because anxiety is a complex and difficult to define illness. It is therefore required to recognise the nuances between anxiety, fear, phobias and stress.

When anxiety becomes extreme, it can alter or even paralyze the functioning of the person. A person suffering from severe anxiety will have considerable difficulties both at work and in family life, sexual and social.

Fear and phobias

Fear, in turn, is a similar emotion to anxiety, but it is normally seen in response to a danger or a real threat.

If fear becomes extreme in a situation imagined as dangerous and tends to cause avoidance of this situation, it is called phobia. There are many kinds of phobias; phobia of animals, closed spaces, of darkness, heights, etc.

Stress and generalized anxiety

Stress is a physiological and psychological response to an often unexpected life situation. For example, significant financial difficulties, divorce, dismissal are definitely stressors which can generate a certain level of anxiety.

Anxiety is an emotion which considered normal when it is a response to stress. It becomes pathological when prolonged exposure to stress creates a fear linked to the anticipation of a negative event or an unknown imminent danger that could happen.


A positive diagnosis of anxiety is made when the patient experiences anxiety and excessive worry coping with daily activities for more than 6 consecutive months.

Anxiety and worry are associated with three (or more) of the following symptoms:

  • Agitation
  • Easily fatigued
  • Difficulty concentrating or memory loss
  • Irritability
  • Muscle tension
  • Sleep disturbance


Anxiety has no single cause. Rather, it is triggered by an association and the sum of physical (biological), psychological and environmental factors (stressors).

  • Biological factors, hereditary/genetic.
  • Psychological factors such as inefficient or ineffective defense mechanism.
  • Stressors from the environment.

Pathological anxiety can be generated by three types of diseases:

  • Physical illness. In this case, anxiety is called “secondary” and disappears after healing.
  • Mental illnesses (other than anxiety disorders): depression, psychosis and bipolar disorder are often characterized by marked anxiety.
  • The whole range of anxiety disorders such as generalized anxiety, panic attacks, phobias and obsessive-compulsive disorder. These types of anxiety are known as “primary” anxiety.

Who is affected?

Anxiety known as Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) affects between 5 and 10% of the population. Women are twice as likely to be affected than men. Sufferers often consult professionals in early adulthood, but say they remember to have always been anxious.

50 to 90% of people suffering from Generalised Anxiety Disorder also suffer from another mental illness. Panic disorder, depression and abuse of drugs or alcohol are frequently associated with GAD.

Prevention and care

If anxiety arises especially in a situational problem of which one has control, it is possible to prevent it by changing some habits. A healthy lifestyle can greatly reduce anxiety to bring it back to a tolerable level.

  • Among the elements of a healthy lifestyle include:
  • A good balance between work, rest and recreation;
  • A low intake of caffeine, alcohol and nicotine;
  • A good diet;
  • Regular exercise.

Several studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in the treatment of anxiety disorders. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is effective both individually and in group sessions.

Antidepressants are effective against depressive symptoms and may be used to treat anxiety when the person has a limited response to psychotherapy. Medications such as benzodiazepines relieve some symptoms and are only recommended for short-term use.

Antipsychotic medications may be prescribed when the person does not respond to other treatments.

Relaxation techniques

Breathing exercises act quickly on anxiety and decrease the overall stress level after a few weeks of regular practice. They are basic relaxation techniques and the key to their success lies in a regular practice: ideally twice a day. After some time, anxiety levels will decrease and energy levels will increase.

Relaxation techniques of many kinds have been proven to reduce stress and anxiety in general. Many types of meditation are proven to reduce stress.

To help break the isolation of people with anxiety, self help groups may allow them to exchange ideas, share experiences and receive information and support.