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Definition of Anxiety

Semple et al. Definition of Anxiety:

a normal and adaptive response to stress and danger which is pathological if prolonged,severe, or out of keeping with the real threat of the external situation (Semple et al.2005)

Anxiety is a general human feeling – its representation and how it is dealt with is exclusive to each person. The degree of anxiety that a person suffers depends upon their own reaction and length of exposure to a situation or object that has the capacity to cause that person stress (Davies & Armstrong 2002). It is also usually proportional to the perceived threat to the person and it can prompt the body to react in an appropriate manner in order to maintain the person’s safety and welfare.Once the perceived threat is removed or dealt with, the level of anxiety usually subsides. Anxiety can be mild, moderate or severe in its presentation. It can also have a physical, psychological, social or emotional impact on the person. According to Thomas (2004) ‘anxiety becomes a disorder when it is consistent, intense and debilitating, to the extent that it disrupts your life’.

Everybody will experience some anxiety in their life, and this is a typical reaction to certain matters which the person perceives as stressful at that particular time.Reflect on the way a person may feel when having to undertake an examination.Their palms probably feel clammy; the person might feel unsettled and restless with thoughts and feelings preoccupying their brain. Unconsciously, their heart is beating faster than normal in line with their increased breathing, but perhaps they do not notice this at the time. Imagine a person having to stand in front of theirclassmates to read aloud or do a presentation for the first time. They almost certainly are conscious of the fact that they are standing alone in front of their friends and their teacher. They are probably more conscious of the fact that their mouth is dry and, despite their best efforts, their words are muddled and it is somewhat difficult for them to speak clearly. However, once the task has been completed (finishing the examination, concluding the reading or presentation), all of the aforementioned symptoms later subside, with or without the person noticing that this has happened.This is the body’s reaction to stressful situations and experiences of restlessness towards some object or situation. Healy (2005) classes this as ‘stage fright’, and itcan occur when people are placed in situations that require unfamiliar functioning in front of others. It is similar to a defence mechanism that generally allows usas human beings to survive and to effectively deal with situations. As a defence mechanism, it can be viewed as a positive feeling since it warns people of potential dangers and can spur them on to react appropriately. This is usually referred to asthe ‘fight or flight’ response and, therefore, is present in each and every one of us.

Feelings of anxiety do not pose a problem if the body reacts to a situation ordanger appropriately in order to protect the person in question. It is estimated that between 8% and 12% of people experience a persistent level of anxiety in their lifetime (Muir-Cochrane 2003). However, these people still function on a daily basis.On the other hand, severe anxiety can lead to an inability to function, which may interfere with the person’s overall ability to perform even the simplest of everyday tasks. Muir-Cochrane also states that between 2% and 4% of the population willexperience an anxiety disorder that will interfere significantly with their everyday lives. Problems occur when the level of reaction to the situation or object is so great that it begins to obstruct the person’s welfare and hinders their ability to lead a full and active life. The person may display behaviours that are not in keeping with their character, which could be perceived as an inability to cope with life’s situations.

In addition, it must be recognised that, while it may be devastating, severe anxiety also has the potential to be life-threatening.

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