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Understanding and Treating Anxiety

Everyone has some familiarity with anxiety. Anxiety is the feeling of worry, apprehension, fear and/or panic in response to situations that seem overwhelming, threatening, unsafe or uncomfortable. You may experience anxiety as an intense worry before a final exam, the nervousness felt before making a presentation, or the heightened alertness when you believe you are in danger.

Anxiety is your body’s way of alerting you that some kind of action is needed in the face of a situation that is perceived to be threatening or dangerous. Therefore, anxiety can be useful or adaptive whenever it prompts you to take appropriate action in response to an anxiety-provoking situation. For example, anxiety can motivate you to study for an exam or organize a presentation or leave a situation that feels unsafe.

However, anxiety can also be detrimental, especially if it becomes overwhelming and prevents you from taking appropriate actions or prompts you to take actions that are counter-productive. Anxiety may be detrimental if you avoid studying for a major exam that worries you, or if you cope with worry about your relationship by getting unnecessarily suspicious and then yelling at your partner. This brochure will help you distinguish between normal or expected anxiety that everyone experiences and anxiety problems that may require intervention.

Because the feeling of anxiety can be intense and distressing, it is quite normal to want to avoid or eliminate these feelings. However, this is not necessarily the best approach to anxiety. If you ignore or try to eliminate your anxieties, you miss out on valuable information about your life and about your options for dealing with unavoidably stressful and demanding situations. It is often a better approach to begin with assessing the degree to which your anxiety works for you or is excessive and a source of problems for you.

Since anxiety is a basic human emotion, like sadness, how do you know if anxiety is a problem? The following will help you determine whether anxiety could be partly responsible for some of the difficulties you may experience:

  • Am I anxious more often than not throughout my day?
  • Have I restricted my activities as a way of coping with anxiety?
  • Do I experience panic or panic-like symptoms in certain predictable situations?
  • Am I intensely fearful of specific situations or things (e.g., animals)?
  • Do I experience acute anxiety in social situations?
  • Have I developed elaborate rituals or thought-processes to manage anxiety?
  • Is my anxiety related to a specific, traumatic event?

If you answered yes to some of the previous questions, you may have more specific questions about the anxiety symptoms you have been experiencing. The following are various conditions for which anxiety is the predominant feature.

Types of Anxiety

Panic Disorder

A panic attack is defined as a period of intense fear or discomfort accompanied by physical symptoms such as sweating, trembling and chest pain as well as cognitive symptoms such as fear of losing control and/or dying. A panic attack can be associated with any of the anxiety disorders, but panic disorder itself is characterized by recurrent, unexpected panic attacks and persistent concerns about having additional panic attacks.

Specific Phobia

The anxiety in specific phobia is associated with persistent, excessive and unreasonable fear when there is an anticipated or actual encounter with a specific object or situation. There can be significant anxiety and sometimes panic whenever a phobic person is exposed to the feared object or situation. Some examples of specific phobias include fear of certain animals, fear of heights, fear of blood or fear of places such as bridges or elevators.

Social Phobia

Social phobia is defined as a marked and persistent fear of a social situation or a performance in which embarrassment is considered to be a likely outcome. A fear of public speaking is one of the more common forms of social phobia. In all instances of social phobia, there is acute anxiety whenever the feared situation or performance is anticipated or encountered and there is frequently a strong desire for avoidance.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

The presence of recurrent obsessions and compulsions which are time-consuming, impair life activities, and are recognized by the person as being excessive or unreasonable are features of this condition. An obsession is defined as persistent ideas, thoughts, impulses or images which are intrusive, anxiety-provoking and distressing. A compulsion is a ritualistic behavior which is intended to modify or reduce the anxiety through activity or
behavior. The most frequent compulsions involve washing and cleaning, counting, seeking assurances, checking and/or repeating actions.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

The anxiety in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is clearly associated with a traumatic event that the person experienced or witnessed and was associated with intense fear, horror or helplessness. In addition, there are recurrent, intrusive recollections of the events which are anxiety-provoking and distressing to the person. There may be avoidance of any situations associated with the original trauma and other anxiety-related symptoms such as hyper-vigilance or exaggerated startle response.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder

The primary feature of Generalized Anxiety Disorder is excessive anxiety and worry which occurs more days than not for a period of at least six months. In addition, symptoms of restlessness, fatigue, concentration problems, irritability, muscle tension and sleep disturbance may be present. The anxiety is perceived by the individual as being difficult to control or regulate.

Treatment of Anxiety

If anxiety symptoms are interfering with your ability to do routine, day-to-day activities, or if you have restricted your life activities as a way of coping with anxiety, you should consider seeking professional help. There are currently a variety of highly effective interventions available for the treatment of anxiety, including psychotherapy, biofeedback and stress management and medication. If you seek treatment, the recommendations you receive will likely depend on the specific symptoms you are experiencing. All anxiety disorders are treatable and many individuals experience a full recovery from their symptoms.

What Can I Do?

It is usually helpful to identify the events surrounding the experience of anxiety:

  • What provokes the anxiety?
  • What thoughts, emotions, or physical sensations accompany the anxiety?
  • How distressing is the anxiety?
  • How are you coping with the anxiety?

Exploring these accompanying events may provide useful information about the nature of the anxiety as well as possible strategies for reducing it. In addition, there are specific changes you can make that may help alleviate anxiety symptoms:

  • Exercise or engage in some form of daily physical activity
  • Eat a nutritious, well-balanced diet
  • Obtain an adequate amount of sleep
  • Seek emotional support from friends and family
  • Focus on positive aspects of your life
  • Establish realistic, attainable goals which do not rely on perfectionistic expectations
  • Monitor how you think about stress and reduce and/or change negative thoughts
  • Identify activities that feel overwhelming and reduce your involvement or seek ways to make them more manageable
  • Consult with a physician if you are experiencing any medical problems
  • Consult with a mental health professional if you are concerned about your anxiety
  • Reduce or eliminate the use of alcohol and drugs and limit caffeine intake
  • Don’t assume responsibility for events which are outside of your control

Helping an Anxious Person

If someone you care about has been experiencing anxiety symptoms, you can be a valuable resource. There is often tremendous shame associated with anxiety. If you talk candidly with the person regarding your concerns for his or her well-being, it can help bring the problems out into the open. Emphasize that your primary objective is to convey feelings of concern and assistance. You can also always consult with a mental health professional yourself if you are concerned about how to talk with your friend.

Suggestions for intervening with an anxious friend:

  • Be empathetic and understanding
  • Don’t minimize the severity of anxiety symptoms
  • Avoid critical or shaming statements
  • Encourage coping strategies which don’t rely on avoidance of anxiety-provoking stimuli
  • Challenge expressions of hopelessness
  • Don’t argue about how bad things are
  • Don’t become angry even though your efforts to help may be resisted or rejected
  • Advocate for treatment of anxiety
  • Consult with a mental health professional if an anxious friend refuses necessary treatment


  • The National Institute of Mental Health
  • The National Mental Health Association
  • An End to Panic: Breakthrough Techniques for Overcoming Panic Disorder. (2000). Elke Zuercher-White. Fine Communications.
  • Mastery of Your Anxiety and Worry: Client Workbook. (2000). David Barlow and Michelle Craske. Psychological Corporation.
  • The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook. 2nd edition. (2000). Edmund J. Bourne. New Harbinger Publications.
  • The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook. 4th edition. (1997). Martha Davis, Matthew McKay, Elizabeth Robbins Eshelman, and Valerie Winemuller. New Harbinger Publications.

Need Additional Help?

The Counseling Center offers individual and group counseling for these and related issues, as well as information about, and referral to, other campus and community resources. For more information or to schedule an appointment, call the Counseling Center at 573-882-6601.

Adapted from “Understanding and Treating Anxiety,” University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Counseling Center.