Anxiety Definition: Psychology Facts And Tips

Reviewed by Dawn Brown, LPC, NCC

Published 08/08/2022

Everyone has their own way of describing anxiety. Some might say it’s a nervous, jittery feeling. Others call it fear or stress. You may even hear someone who has anxiety saying they’re going to freak out or lose their mind if they have to face something or someone. But none of these are the definitions psychologists use. Here are a few more precise definitions, facts about this disorder, and tips for dealing with it.

Dictionary Definitions Of Anxiety

Where do most people look when they want to know a word’s definition? Usually, they take out a dictionary or search for one online. These definitions are often good general descriptions of the word, although they may be lacking the precision of psychological explanations. Here are a few dictionaries you might look at and the first definitions they give for anxiety.

Merriam-Webster: (1) apprehensive uneasiness or nervousness usually over an impending or anticipated ill: a state of being anxious.

Cambridge Dictionary: an uncomfortable feeling of nervousness or worry about something that is happening or might happen in the future.

Oxford Learners Dictionary: (1) the state of feeling nervous or worried that something terrible will happen.

Psychologists’ Definition Of Anxiety

Psychologists go beyond the dictionary definitions when researching, diagnosing, and treating anxiety. Instead, they rely on the operational definition. So, what is that? It’s a nuts-and-bolts definition that describes the condition of anxiety in very specific ways. It relies on scales of measurement to assess the anxious state and the long-term characteristics of anxiety disorders.

Operational Definition Of Anxiety

For anxiety, this definition would include the precise amount of sweat gland activity, your heart rate, other physiological symptoms, as well as your own rating of the severity of your anxiety.

For instance, the American Psychological Dictionary has a more precise definition of anxiety than most dictionaries, and it lays the foundation for an operational definition of anxiety.

“Anxiety: an emotion characterized by apprehension and somatic symptoms of tension in which an individual anticipates impending danger, catastrophe, or misfortune…”

The APA definition describes the bodily responses to anxiety, including muscle tension and rapid heartbeat. Finally, it distinguishes anxiety from fear.

One operational definition of anxiety is that it a state that arises from non-specific stimuli that seem threatening to your future. This perception puts you in a state of arousal; it makes you hypervigilant. And it can last for the long-term. Fear has a different but similar operational definition. It can cause you to feel the same way, but it arises not from a general belief or stimulus but from a clear and specific threat.

Does The Definition Apply To You?


Symptoms may be considered a part of the operational definition, too. Think about how anxiety affects you. If you decide it’s a problem worth looking into, a therapist can help you evaluate your condition as well.

Knowing the symptoms may help you recognize your own anxiety. Here are some signs that are common to many of the different types of anxiety:

  • A nervous, restless, or tense feeling
  • Sense of impending doom
  • Panic
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Rapid breathing
  • Trembling
  • Sweating
  • Weakness
  • Tired feeling
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Problems with concentration
  • Excessive worry
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Avoiding anxiety triggers

Anxiety Tests

If a therapist is going to assess your anxiety, they may start with a test. Some of these include:

  • Zung Self-Rating Anxiety Scale
  • Beck Anxiety Inventory
  • Hamilton Anxiety Scale
  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder Scale
  • Social Phobia Inventory
  • Yale-Brown Obsessive-Compulsive Scale.

You can also take an anxiety test online on your own. This type of test can be beneficial as you try to decide whether to seek treatment or try an anxiety remedy.

Types Of Anxiety

Anxiety disorder can be broken down into several more specific conditions. The following are definitions of several of the most common ones.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder Definition

Generalized anxiety disorder is a state of nervousness and worry in which anxiety symptoms arise from anything from stressful situations to everyday routines. You worry much more than the circumstances warrant.

Separation Anxiety Definition

Separation anxiety is usually a childhood disorder. The child feels extreme anxiety whenever they are separated from their parent or another caregiver.

Performance Anxiety Definition

Performance anxiety is a condition that happens whenever you have to do something in front of an audience. For example, you might be prone to performance anxiety if you have to give speeches or participate in theatrical productions. Informally, performance anxiety is often defined as nervousness that happens before or during sexual activity.

Social Anxiety Definition

If you have social anxiety, you may feel extremely anxious, nervous, fearful, or embarrassed when you’re in social situations. People with this disorder often avoid situations where they will feel ashamed, self-conscious, or judged by others.

PTSD Definition

Post-traumatic stress disorder, known as PTSD, is a condition that many people experience due to a specific traumatic event. In addition to common anxiety symptoms, you might also have sleep disturbances, irritability, or angry outbursts.

Panic Disorder Definition

Panic disorder is defined by frequent episodes in which you have sudden and intense anxiety symptoms. You feel a sense of terror that may be accompanied by shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, chest pain, or heart palpitations. Often, people with panic disorder continuously worry about having another episode.

Phobia Definition

A phobia is an anxiety related to fear of a specific thing or situation. It can often lead to avoiding that trigger and may also lead to panic attacks.

Agoraphobia Definition

Agoraphobia is another anxiety disorder. This one is related to fears of feeling helpless, trapped, or embarrassed. People with this condition also tend to avoid anything that might bring up those fears.

Is OCD An Anxiety Disorder?

Yes, OCD is an anxiety disorder in which you experience both obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are uncomfortable and unhelpful recurring thoughts or feelings. You may or may not know that a thought isn’t true, but sometimes you can’t seem to stop turning it over in your mind. Compulsions are repetitive behaviors, such as checking things, cleaning, and hand washing.

Anxiety Facts And Tips

Fact: Anxiety is the most common mental health disorder. It affects 18.1% of the population every year.
Tip: If you’re feeling bad about yourself because of the fact that you have anxiety, or are looking for a way to help yourself, Cognitive Behavior Therapy can help you. There you can learn to assess negative beliefs about yourself and learn to choose more helpful thoughts.

Fact: Avoiding what you fear tends to make your anxiety worse in the long run.
Tip: Rather than staying away from the things that frighten or worry you, do the things you need to do to meet your needs. Continue to engage in the activities that interest you. You can get help in dealing with your fears, as avoiding them can severely limit you.

Fact: People with anxiety disorders often have other mental illnesses as well, including depression, ADHD, and eating disorders.
Tip: If you think you have an anxiety disorder, but some of the symptoms don’t seem to fit with anxiety, consider that you might also have another psychological disorder. A therapist can help you approach each of your conditions systematically, both separately and as part of your overall mental health.

Fact: Nearly everyone worries at one time or another.
Tip: If you have a mild or occasional worry that’s realistic and related to significant life events, you may not have an anxiety disorder. But if you’re unsure, it only takes a few moments to take a self-test.

Fact: Anxiety has been connected to various risk factors, including genetics, trauma, ongoing stress, poor diet, inadequate sleep, withdrawal from alcohol or drugs, or family history of mental disorders.
Tip: You can control some sources of anxiety, such as drug and alcohol use. Others, such as genetic makeup and family history, you can’t change. The important thing is to understand what you’re dealing with right now and learn to manage your anxiety symptoms in the present moment.

Fact: Only 36.9% of people with anxiety receive treatment.
Tip: Be the one who seeks help when you need it. Anxiety is highly treatable. So, it makes perfect sense to get treatment to relieve your symptom. Otherwise, you continue to endure, and your anxiety may even get worse.

Dealing With Anxiety Is Well Worth The Effort

Anxiety is more than just an uncomfortable psychological and physical feeling. It can also make you physically ill over time. What’s more, it can prevent you from engaging in life the way you would like to or achieving your highest goals. If you have occasional or mild anxiety, you may find many ways to deal with it. Examples include listening to music, using aromatherapy, taking herbal preparations or supplements, and even quietly watching a sunset.

However, if your anxiety is causing you to miss out on your favorite activities or preventing you from taking care of yourself well, it may be time to seek treatment. Finding out what type of anxiety it is might be your first step. After that, if you need treatment, a therapist can help you navigate the stormy seas of whatever anxiety disorder you need to overcome.