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What Is Anxiety?


Last week we talked about fear. This week, we turn to anxiety. But what is anxiety?

Anxiety has often been conceptualized as a “diffuse” and “objectless apprehension,”the kind of apprehension that people experience when they feel something bad is about to happen but are uncertain of what exactly.

But anxiety can be more specific too. One may feel anxious about, say, an upcoming dental appointment, a blind date, a midterm exam, a work presentation, going to the zoo, cooking from a new recipe…the possibilities are endless.

Unpredictable and Uncontrollable

Barlow, a well-known psychologist who has studied fear and anxiety for decades, defines anxiety as a “future-orientated emotion, characterized by perceptions of uncontrollability and unpredictability over potentially aversive events and a rapid shift in attention to the focus of potentially dangerous events or one’s own affective response to these events.”1

Let us consider the components of this definition one by one. We are told that anxiety concerns the future, which is self-explanatory enough. But what are aversive events?

Aversive events are those situations or stimuli that people would like to avoid, ones that cause pain, embarrassment, etc.

Look at the definition again and note the words unpredictability and uncontrollability. Now look at the examples I provided earlier. What is common to those examples?  The possibility for something to go wrong, something bad to happen, a certain something that we can not fully foresee nor control.

There is the possibility, for example, of experiencing embarrassment during a blind date or pain during a dental appointment.

On a larger scale, the unpredictability and uncontrollability of natural disasters such as hurricanes and wildfires, or human-instigated ones such as wars, are a big part of why we find these occurrences so anxiety-provoking.

Reality or Perception

In general, then, the more unmanageable and unforeseeable an aversive event, the more likely it can cause anxiety.

“Wait a minute, Arash,” I imagine the careful reader interrupting me, “but Barlow talked only of perceptions of uncontrollability or unpredictability.”

That is true.

Consider two people going to the zoo together, one believing all animals there to be highly unpredictable and uncontrollable, while another believing that most animals in the zoo are somewhat predictable or at least mostly manageable. Which of the two is likely to experience high anxiety before going to the zoo?

Anxiety also involves quick shifts in attention, sometimes to the focus of the threat and sometimes to one’s own emotional response to it.

For example, when a student continues to find himself struggling to answer the questions on an exam, his eyes might quickly shift to the clock or the stern-looking teacher, or to his own perspiring hands and tightening chest.


As we have seen, anxiety often concerns a potentially disagreeable and dangerous event in the future. Our levels of anxiety change depending on our perceptions of an event’s predictability and controllability.

If you are experiencing anxiety, you could ask yourself:

• Is it only my perception or is it objectively true that the situation is dangerous?

It is helpful to logically examine the situation or even ask other people’s views on it.

• Can I anticipate this disagreeable event, or manage it in any way?

Often preparations can be made for contingencies.  It helps to have backup plans.

Next week

Last week I discussed fear and this week anxiety. Next time I will review the differences between fear and anxiety.
While some believe the two to be synonymous, there are others who draw clear boundaries between the fear and anxiety.

Can you think of any differences?

p.s. if there are any aspects of my articles that are not clear, if you spot any errors, or if you would like me to discuss a specific fear/anxiety related issue, let me know.


1. Barlow, D. H. (2002). Anxiety and its disorders: The nature and treatment of anxiety and panic (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

What Is Anxiety?

Arash Emamzadeh

Arash Emamzadeh attended the University of British Columbia in Canada, where he studied genetics and psychology. He has also done graduate work in clinical psychology and neuropsychology in US. Arash maintains a personal psychology blog and a blog for Psychology Today. Arash has a wide range of intellectual and artistic interests; he also maintains a poetry blog.

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APA Reference
Emamzadeh, A. (2018). What Is Anxiety?. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 11, 2020, from


Last updated: 15 Feb 2018
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