Scientists Say: Anxiety

Anxiety is a sense of unease, nervousness or dread

a young man sits on a couch in an office across from a woman

When anxiety gets overwhelming, talking to a counselor or therapist can help.

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Anxiety (noun, “Ang-ZY-eh-tee”)

Anxiety is a sense of worry, fear or unease. It might make your hands sweat or your heart race. It might make you feel tense or jittery. Anxiety is a normal response to stressful situations. Giving a class presentation, for instance. Or going on a date. Or performing in a recital.

A bit of anxiety can ramp up your energy and focus. This can help you deal with stressors. Feeling anxious about an upcoming test, for example, can push you to study. Techniques like deep breathing can help you power through the unpleasantness of anxiety. And facing your fears can boost your confidence that you can handle such scary situations.

But for some people, anxiety can become overwhelming. They might have frequent, intense fears about everyday situations. Or they might feel worried or afraid for no reason at all. Such excessive anxiety can take up a lot of time and energy. It can make it hard to focus or fall asleep. It may also make someone avoid safe, everyday situations. Such persistent, disruptive anxiety can be a sign of a disorder.

There are many types of anxiety disorders. People with social anxiety have intense fears of being judged by others. People with phobias, meanwhile, are very afraid of things that do not pose much real danger, such as spiders or heights. And people with panic disorder experience bouts of overwhelming fear — or panic attacks — in the absence of any real danger. Other examples of anxiety disorders include obsessive-compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Anxiety disorders are fairly common. An estimated one-third of all U.S. teens have experienced one. And there are many factors that may heighten someone’s risk of developing an anxiety disorder. People with a family history of anxiety may be at higher risk. So are those who have experienced trauma. People with other mental-health conditions, such as depression, often have anxiety, too. But treatments such as therapy and medication can help manage anxiety.

In a sentence

Missing out on sleep can up a person’s levels of anxiety

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Maria Temming is the Assistant Managing Editor at Science News Explores. She has bachelor's degrees in physics and English, and a master's in science writing.

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