Anxiety’s Characteristics

Let’s build on our last time together and talk a bit more about what anxiety is. We’ll do this under three headings: normal and abnormal, acute and chronic, and developmental or situational. I’ll just add that the terms I will be using here are not diagnostic categories for anxiety. They are, however, useful concepts in helping us to understand anxiety a bit better.


Anxiety can be normal or abnormal

As I spoke to this last time, I won’t go into it in any detail again here. You might find it helpful to look back at last week’s blog if you need a refresher on this point.

Normal anxiety is reality-based in its assessment of the matter at hand. For example, “It will be a pain in the butt if I fail this test and have to take the class over,” is a reality-based statement. It will be accompanied by an appropriate and understandable level of anxiety.

The same cannot be said for abnormal anxiety. “If I fail this test my life is over. I’ll never get to be a biologist,” is extreme. So is the level of anxiety which accompanies it. This kind of anxiety is life-limiting.


Anxiety can be acute or chronic

When we speak of acute anxiety we are usually talking about panic attacks. As anyone who has had the misfortune of having a panic attack can tell you – it is a terrifying experience. I have had scores of clients over the years who have experienced an attack (or several) and that is precisely the word that has always come to my mind as they are describing the episode – an experience of terror.

In fact, this is so much the case that often the fear of possibly having another attack is the cause of the acute anxiety… and thus often, another attack. (This frequently gives rise to the clinical diagnosis of Panic Disorder.)


However, not all episodes of acute anxiety are abnormal. Let’s contrast the following two examples:

[su_box title=”Acute Anxiety – Normal and Abnormal” style=”noise” box_color=”#706e6e” title_color=”#ffffff” radius=”5″]

1. April sees someone speeding down the highway toward her head-on. She pulls to the curb just before the oncoming car flashes past her. Certainly, this would cause acute anxiety.

2. Marcy, who is claustrophobic, obsesses over the possibility that she might have to pack into a crowded elevator to go to her three o’clock appointment. The very thought of potentially having to do this generates an acute episode of anxiety.[/su_box]

But the two examples differ in kind, don’t they. In example 1. the response is quite normal  while in 2. the response is irrational and extreme. Both, however, are examples of acute anxiety.


[su_pullquote]Chronic anxiety, on the other hand,[/su_pullquote]


is like (an unwanted!) traveling companion through life. It is durational in nature (vs time specific). Chronic anxiety is not focused on any given stressor, as is acute anxiety. Rather, a persistent-but-general fear, dread, or worry seems to hover over life like a cloud. It is easy to see why the person suffering from chronic anxiety is often drained of energy as just the daily presence of this malady is exhausting. Those who suffer from chronic anxiety are frequently diagnosed with GAD (General Anxiety Disorder).


Anxiety can be developmental or situational

You may think developmental anxiety sounds like it might be the same as chronic anxiety. That would be an understandable mistake. The difference is this: when we talk about developmental anxiety we’re speaking of origins – that is, an anxiety that has its foundations in the earlier developmental stages of one’s life. When the subject is chronic anxiety, we’re talking about its extent or general pervasiveness in one’s life currently.

Situational anxiety is short-term in nature and relates to specific contexts. Phobias are an example of situational anxiety.

Often developmental and situational anxiety converge as in the case of Diane, which I discuss in the Master Program of We Might Be Giants (you can find out about this program here). Diane’s anxiety was born in her developmental years as the result of her father’s booze-fueled anger episodes.

However, it manifest in her adult life situationally only on the rare occasions when her husband fixed himself a drink at home. Even though her husband was nothing like her father, his occasionally having a cocktail stirred her anxiety to life.


Let me say again that the terms I have employed here – normal/abnormal, acute/chronic, and developmental/situational are not diagnostic classifications. I am using them only as descriptors to give you an idea of the facets of anxiety, and how anxiety plays out in life as one experiences it.

In our next installment we will talk more about developmental anxiety.


Dr Michael Ruth, Growth Resources, Personal Growth