Anxiety is probably the most common human reaction to stress. However, it is the emotional and cognitive components of anxiety which allow us to distinguish between human reaction to stress in general and anxiety in particular.

Although the anxiety we feel may well be caused by some stressful event or situation, different people respond to the same stressful event in very different ways.


The term 'trait anxiety' refers to the personality trait which determines the frequency and severity with which an individual experiences anxiety states over a long period of time.

A person high in trait anxiety worries much more than one low in trait anxiety. He sees the world as a more threatening place and responds to his perceptions of threat with greater anxiety, and, if he is subjected to stress for a long time, he may eventually become continuously emotionally aroused.

To some extent, anxiety traits are determined genetically. Another factor of great importance must be the influence of one's parents during childhood, because they teach us how to respond to life events. Negative parent-child relationships predispose an individual to be anxious in later life.

This is because an insecure individual who is unsure of his own self-worth will tend to feel apprehensive about his relationships with the world in general and other people in particular. Also it is quite likely that negative experiences in one's early childhood contribute to trait anxiety. However, not every anxious person has had an unhappy childhood!


Repression involves the suppression of unpleasant or unacceptable thoughts, feelings and emotions into the subconscious mind, in an attempt to stop them acting as a source of psychological distress or discomfort. Freudian psychology says repression is the mechanism of neurotic anxiety (that is, any form of anxiety not caused by an objective danger or threat).

Freudian psychology was dominant for many years. But when behavioural psychology began to develop, it was realized that anxiety states could be treated without reference to repressed material. In fact, behavioural psychology emphasizes that anxiety is a behaviour pattern which is maintained through a learning or conditioning process.

As an example of a conditioning process, think of Pavlov and his dogs. Whereas a dog responds to the sight of food by salivating, naturally enough there is no such response to the sound of a bell.

But Pavlov put the bell and food together often enough, and found the dogs began to salivate at the sound of the bell alone: in other words, they were 'conditioned' to expect food when the bell sounded. The sight of food and the natural salivation are called the unconditioned stimulus and response respectively; the bell and subsequent salivation are called the conditioned stimulus and response respectively.

Later, a scientist called Watson suggested that we can all be conditioned in childhood by experiencing fear or anxiety in a particular situation, and that afterwards, similar situations will elicit similar feelings of anxiety and fear. And because of the generalization effect, stimuli which are rather different to the original one may also cause us to feel fear or anxiety.

Conditioning does not only occur during childhood. We can develop a conditioned anxiety response at any time during our lives. The idea comes down to this: if you feel anxious and aroused in a particular situation, similar situations in the future may also make you feel anxious. And because conditioning is a subconscious process, it makes no difference that your rational conscious mind tells you there is nothing to fear.

Anxiety is unpleasant. There is no doubt about that. And that is why conditioning is so effective. Suppose you are nervous at a social gathering and the anxiety you feel makes you want to get away.

Doing so will make you feel much better, but next time you are in the same sort of situation, the anxiety may return. Your desire to 'escape' may be even stronger, and the sense of relief which escape produces will also be more powerful. Eventually you simply avoid the anxiety-making situation altogether. Thus, cat phobics avoid cats, agoraphobics avoid crowded spaces, shy people avoid social contact, and so on.

Obviously this sort of behaviour can - for a while - make you feel much better. But by avoiding the cause of your anxiety, you are stopping any reversal of the conditioning from taking place.

To understand this, consider once again the dogs which have been conditioned to salivate at the sound of a bell. If they hear the bell repeatedly, with no food being presented, they learn that the stimulus is no longer associated with food and eventually the salivation ceases.

Of course, such 'extinction' of response can only occur if the subject can see and hear the conditioned stimulus. But, as we have explained, anxious people tend to avoid the source of their anxiety, and because they never confront it, extinction cannot occur.

In the case of extremely troublesome or persistent anxiety which does feels beyond your own self-help treatment, we suggest you use a qualified and experienced local counsellor.

In London, we can recommend Michael Whiteley at North London Counselling, who is qualified and experienced in dealing with all kinds of emotional issues.

Conditioning is under the control of the subconscious mind. The conscious mind cannot affect the subconscious or its conditioned responses, so we have the bizarre situation where, say, a woman phobic about cats knows full well that her fear of cats is quite absurd and irrational, but no amount of conscious effort will change the situation.

Conditioning takes place most readily when a person is highly aroused. Therefore a person under stress, who is highly aroused, is predisposed to develop conditioned anxiety responses.

One man we saw experienced anxiety and erectile dysfunction during sexual relationships with his wife, although he admitted that he only had the problem at home in his own bedroom. It transpired that several years earlier, he'd had an affair with another woman.

One day her husband had caught him and beaten him up; the bizarre aspect of the matter was that the wallpaper in his own and his lover's bedroom was exactly the same. Each time he tried to make love with his wife, the wallpaper in his own bedroom served as a reminder of the beating, and the anxiety which this produced made him impotent!

Next: Specific anxiety states and what to do about them

Next: The effects of anxiety

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