Anxiety is a normal human emotion. We all experience anxiety to varying degrees throughout our lives. It serves an adaptive function by helping to protect us. Our brains are constantly receiving messages by way of our five senses. These messages are processed in the brain. An area of the brain called the limbic system is responsible for monitoring threat and danger. The amygdalae are two small structures within the limbic system that activates the fight-or-flight response by signaling the release of the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol activates the sympathetic nervous system which sends messages to the parts of our body that prepare us to take action to stay safe.
Anxiety is a necessary emotion which trips our natural internal alarm system. Without it, we would be vulnerable to danger and would likely cease to exist. Pre-historic humans who didn't experience anxiety were likely eliminated from the gene pool through natural selection as they fell victim to the harsh elements of the time.
We want and need anxiety for our continued existence. However, anxiety can be unhelpful if it warns us of danger when no physical threat exists. For example, the fear of heights may be warranted if there is an imminent risk of falling to ones death. However, the fear of heights may be unjustified if we're positioned safely indoors of a penthouse apartment or office with no immediate risk of falling.
It is these circumstances -- when the fear is irrational and no imminent danger or threat exist -- that anxiety becomes a disorder. Anxiety disorders can take on several forms such as chronic worry, phobias, social anxiety, obsessive-compulsive, and panic. People generally seek the assistance of a therapist when anxiety interferes with normal, day-to-day functioning such as going to work or school, forming satisfying relationships, and enjoying leisure activities. About 18.1% or 42 million American adults live with anxiety disorders.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy has been shown in hundreds of research studies to be helpful in reducing anxiety disorders. The treatment utilizes strategies such as providing education on the nature of anxiety, helping clients learn to identify and adjust unhelpful thought patterns, and exposure therapy. Exposure therapy is usually the most potent ingredient in the treatment by systemically and scientifically helping clients learn to have different experiences when being exposed to the fear trigger.