greyscale photography of woman wearing long sleeved top
Mental Health

What is Anxiety?

It’s a long-standing biological mechanism that helped our species survive long ago. Understanding that the tiger in the woods might eat us as we gathered food was a state of awareness that kept us alive. Anxiety is the anticipation of an event with an uncertain outcome that we decide will be challenging or threatening to our well-being. By its very nature, anxiety takes us out of the present moment and moves our attention to a yet unknown future event. This reduces our focus, memory, and functioning in the here and now. When anxiety is chronic, it then becomes what’s called pathological. Pathological means anxiety is uncontrollable and interferes with effective daily functioning. Anxiety can be experienced as worrying thoughts, intrusive concerns, physical tension held in the body, or even destructive behaviors that cause the very outcome that is feared.

Nature and Nurture

There is a neurobiological basis for anxiety. As with most things human, there are two parts to consider – nature and nurture. Nature is the makeup of our brains and nervous system based on genetics. Some people just have a more sensitive nervous system to stimuli from the environment. In other words, their emotional baseline tends to be more activated making them more easily triggered than the typical person. Some call this the trait anxiety. And before we think this is awful news for these folks, consider this – this sensitivity has some benefits. When sensitivity is moderated, it helps an individual be more aware of the emotional state of those around them. This means they can be more supportive. Additionally, the sensitive person may find it easier to tap into creativity and be more artistic. Also, the sensitive brain allows a more nuanced thinking pattern, and this can lead to superior problem-solving. When it comes to nurturing, a person with a typical modulated anxiety level who is exposed to more intense levels of stressful situations may become anxious. This is a natural human response, also known as the state of anxiety. It typically passes when the perceived threat passes. Unfortunately, if intense stress is unrelenting, this may cause a heightened sense of unease about the future and may lead to pathological anxiety disorders.

greyscale photography of woman wearing long sleeved top
Photo by Kat Smith on

Mindful Solutions to Anxiety

There is hope regardless of whether you are more sensitive to anxiety (trait) or have a lot of stress in your life (state). All anxiety is rooted in a fear of the future. It is an anticipation of something undesirable happening. For example, it could be the inability to meet demand, loss of control of self or something else, or not getting something that’s needed. Anxiety always pulls us from the present moment. We are not grounded and are wrapped up in imaginings. Being grounded is the perception that you are in the here and now and are accepting of the current reality. When present in the here and now, we let go of the future. So, the first step is to ground in the present moment with tools such as exercise, meditation, and the breath. Second, instead of allowing the mind to wander to all the awful things that may happen in a situation that’s coming up, allow yourself to be curious. Develop a sense of curiosity that includes what it would be like if everything went well or exactly as you believe is needed. What would you be seeing? Hearing? Smelling? Where would you be? Who would be there? Would you smile? Would you allow things to go well? And last, notice when you focus on devising every possibility that might happen that you think you need to be prepared for. It will never work. If you have 1000 scenarios, 1001 will happen. Instead, focus on preparing yourself to be secure no matter what happens. This might include affirmations such as May I be capable, talking with a trusted friend who will remind you of all the reasons you are valued, or pulling out mementos from earlier successes like a sporting event, you and your sibling having a blast, or a vacation you tried something new.

In other words, trust yourself and live in the moment.
“Let go of the thoughts that don’t make you strong.” —Karen Salmansohn

This is a guest post by:

Alyson Phelan, CYT 500, CMMT, TRCC Certified, Yoga Teacher, 500
Certified Mindfulness and Meditation Teacher Trauma Responsive Care Certified

Find Alyson on her website for any questions, concerns, or requests here:

5 3 votes
Article Rating
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
1 year ago

Thank you for this. I know a lot of people that struggle with this

Dr. W. Santiago | Literal Med

Dealing with anxiety is not easy for the person who suffers from it nor for those living around the anxious person. Therefore, finding ways to cope with anxiety helps you and your loved ones too. Thanks for this post.

1 year ago

Thank you Alyson for writing about this, I’d never heard of nature and nurture with regards to anxiety and that some people have a sensitive nervous system. I found this very insightful and will read up more about it 🙂

Teresa Hardrick
1 year ago

I agree that accepting reality is important.

1 year ago

Very informative article, thank you for sharing!🤩

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x