Anxiety Definition

Anxiety is an unpleasant emotional state, characterized by tension, apprehension, and worry. It occurs in response to a perceived threat, which in the case of fear is fairly specific and identifiable (e.g., seeing a snake) but in the case of anxiety tends to be vague and suspenseful (e.g., giving a speech). It is a defensive response, one that signals danger and, like other emotions, is thought to have an important function related to survival. In the social arena, the threat is the perceived potential harm to one’s self-esteem, self-worth, or self-concept. The anxiety can be domain specific (e.g., text anxiety, public speaking anxiety). Anxiety can help an individual identify a negative event and cope with it; if excessive or uncontrollable, however, anxiety is maladaptive.

Anxiety Background

AnxietyThe concept of anxiety has a long and revered history in psychology, beginning at least with Sigmund Freud who offered one early conceptualization. He saw anxiety as a warning signal that something threatening could happen. For Freud, neurotic anxiety was the central concern. This is the unconscious fear that one’s impulses (the Id) may take over and lead a person to do things that would be punished. The anxiety is a signal to one’s rational side (the Ego), and the unconscious worry reflects the internal psychological battle between these psychic forces.

Later theorists, sometimes called post-Freudian, characterized anxiety as basic, stemming from a child’s dependency (particularly feelings of being isolated and helpless in a potentially hostile world). Being raised in a nurturing home, however, where security, trust, love, tolerance, and warmth prevail can replace such fears of being abandoned and produce more adaptive relations with other people. Abraham Maslow is highly regarded for his proposal of a hierarchy of needs and his focus on the positive side of human experience (i.e., self-actualization). But he is also noted for placing safety and physical security needs at a fundamental level on the hierarchy, suggesting that they must be satisfied before higher-order needs such as love, esteem, and actualization can be realized.

These ideas set the stage for contemporary research on attachment theory, where the emotional connection between a caregiver and child can either prove secure and dependable (i.e., safe) or insecure. The importance of attachment and a sense of belongingness, and trust in relationships, have come to be central themes for contemporary social psychology. The attachment patterns of adults shows that these infant attachment patterns either persist into adulthood or emerge again in adult long-term intimate relationships.

The social psychological roots of the anxiety construct can also be traced to William James’s hypothesis that an emotional state is the result of an interaction of bodily changes and cognitive life. Stanley Schachter and Jerome Singer’s famous two-factor theory of emotion sees an emotional state as the combination of a diffuse physiological arousal coupled with a cognitive interpretation of that arousal. When the source of arousal is easily identified, the emotion is easily labeled. However, when no arousal is expected, people are subject to cues in the environment that would stimulate an emotion. When those cues are vague and ill-defined, the subjective experience may be threatening and may produce anxiety.

The Nature of Anxiety

Anxiety is generally regarded as having a set of component parts that include cognitive functioning, physiological, emotional, and behavioral facets. One cognitive component is the expectation of uncertain danger, of course. Anxiety also uses up attention capacity. One consequence is that people with high test anxiety or high social anxiety become less efficient in their behavior, once anxiety is aroused, and their attention is divided. The disruptive impact of anxiety on behavior is illustrated by the large number of errors on performance-related tasks, such as speech-anxious individuals making more speech errors, stammering more, producing more “um” sounds.

Anxiety also stimulates intense vigilance and attention to threat. Anxious individuals are faster to find threat, even in a word recognition task (i.e., threatening words) that involves reaction times measured in fractions of a second. This shows their threat-focused information processing style.

Anxiety is associated with increases in cardiac reactivity (e.g., heart rate and blood pressure) and with other physiological indices (e.g., blood flow to major muscle groups, sweating, trembling, etc.). Physiological arousal is characterized by heightened activation of the automatic nervous system and serves to energize behavior. Physiological arousal can be interpreted positively (as elation, surprise, or attraction), or negatively (as fear, anger, or anxiety).

Most contemporary brain researchers agree that there are two anatomically distinct pathways that interpret physiological arousal: the behavioral approach system (BAS) and the behavioral inhibition system (BIS). The BAS is sensitive to positive stimuli and gives rise to a pleasurable emotional state. The BIS is a parallel system associated with danger and punishment, giving rise to unpleasurable interpretations of events. The BIS is associated with the emotional state of anxiety. This association of the BIS to anxiety helps explain why anxiety is connected to attempts to escape or avoid things that are unpleasant (e.g., worry about making mistakes and withholding responses; shy-like behaviors, such as avoiding criticism or rejection; withdrawing affection in anticipation of being rejected). Of course, escape and avoidance are maladaptive when extreme, as in clinically diagnosed anxiety disorders, but are common in everyday life where nonpathological levels of anxiety occur.

Anxiety is often distinguished in terms of its state or trait nature. State anxiety is a transitory unpleasant emotional arousal stemming from a cognitive appraisal of a threat of some type. Traitanxiety is a stable, personality quality (stable individual difference) in the tendency to respond to threat with state anxiety. One common inventory to identify anxiety is the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory (Charles Spielberger and colleagues); research has also distinguished between a worry (i.e., cognitive) component of anxiety and an emotionality (i.e., arousal) component of anxiety.


  1. Riskind, J. H., Williams, N. L., Gessner, T. L., Chrosniak, L. D., & Cortina, J. M. (2000). The looming maladaptive style: Anxiety, danger, and schematic processing. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 837-852.
  2. Spielberger, C. D. (1966). Theory and research on anxiety. In C. D. Spielberger (Ed.), Anxiety and behavior (pp. 3-20). New York: Academic Press.