What is Anxiety? Is It a Thought, Emotion, or Behavior?

What is anxiety? It's a difficult question that has several answers. Learn how anxiety affects you so you can define it, and reduce it, at HealthyPlace.

What is anxiety? Anxiety feels stressful, crushing, stifling, shocking, painful, and incredibly difficult. But what, exactly, is anxiety? How is it experienced? Is anxiety a thought? Is it an emotion? Is it a behavior? The more you know what anxiety is and about your own unique experience with it, the better equipped you'll be to use the right strategies to move past it. 

Anxiety is often characterized by its symptoms as well as its effects on you. Any list of anxiety symptoms is long and inclusive. Anxiety can be felt in every part of the body. Anxiety can affect you in numerous ways, taking over your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors (what you do and what you don't do because of anxiety). What is anxiety, this unwelcome, shape-shifting, fiend that snares you? 

What is Anxiety? It Is Multifaceted: Thoughts, Emotions, and Behaviors

The answer to the question, "What is anxiety?" is complex. There isn't a single answer. To deepen understanding of anxiety, it's necessary to consider all of the ways anxiety affects us. 

Anxiety affects the way we think, and the way we think can contribute to more anxiety. It's a vicious cycle that often leads to overthinking everything, and it colors the way we see the world and ourselves. Anxious thoughts can be the dominant force behind anxiety. If you find yourself frequently stuck in negative thought patterns, your anxiety could be thought-based. Examples of automatic negative thoughts include:

  • "Should" statements that impose rules on yourself or the world
  • Jumping to conclusions, also known as mind-reading (anxiety drives the way you interpret people, situations, and yourself)

Anxiety can be rooted in emotions and feelings. Anxiety can make you feel irritable and short-tempered or fearful and timid. Worries can make you feel devastated, sad, panicked, mad, or even vaguely upset in ways that feel terrible but are hard to pinpoint. Emotions fuel more anxiety and strong emotions. 

Anxiety also shows itself in behaviors. Anxiety can cause restlessness and agitation that can make it difficult to be still. It can create a pressure to talk or it can seem to erase your thoughts so that it's hard to find words. Anxiety can make you want to withdraw and hide away. You might avoid people and situations you wish you could be a part of. Alternately, you might endure events but suffer deeply inside. In times like these, anxiety might cause escaping behaviors, like making numerous trips to the restroom or excusing yourself from conversations to find a quiet space to be alone. 

Know Your Definition of Anxiety to Beat Your Anxiety

Anxiety is an experience that can involve our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Some people experience anxiety in all of these areas, but for others, anxiety is concentrated in one or two. For example, some people are plagued by anxious thoughts, yet they don't feel the physical or emotional aspects of anxiety. Others feel strong emotions that may or may not occur with physical symptoms of anxiety, but anxious thinking isn't a problem. 

Anxiety isn't simple. There isn't a single answer to the question, "What is anxiety?" This is one of the things that makes anxiety so frustrating and so difficult to overcome. Yet overcoming it is possible. 

Increasing your awareness of your own definition of anxiety helps you discover a starting point for beating anxiety. Where does anxiety impact you the most: your thoughts, emotions, or behaviors? Even if your anxiety involves all three, determine which is the most bothersome and start your anxiety management strategies there. Build a toolbox of anxiety-reducing strategies that tackle thoughts, emotions, or behaviors. 

Soon, your answer to "What is anxiety?" will be, "I don't know. I don't live with it." 

APA Reference
Peterson, T. (2018, August 23). What is Anxiety? Is It a Thought, Emotion, or Behavior? , HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 13 from

Author: Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC, DAIS

Tanya J. Peterson is the author of numerous anxiety self-help books, including The Morning Magic 5-Minute Journal, The Mindful Path Through Anxiety, 101 Ways to Help Stop Anxiety, The 5-Minute Anxiety Relief Journal, The Mindfulness Journal for Anxiety, The Mindfulness Workbook for Anxiety, and Break Free: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in 3 steps. She has also written five critically acclaimed, award-winning novels about life with mental health challenges. She delivers workshops for all ages and provides online and in-person mental health education for youth. She has shared information about creating a quality life on podcasts, summits, print and online interviews and articles, and at speaking events. Tanya is a Diplomate of the American Institution of Stress helping to educate others about stress and provide useful tools for handling it well in order to live a healthy and vibrant life. Find her on her website, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Anne Dodrill
October, 2 2018 at 8:34 am

Tanya, I immediately thought of you this morning as a wave of nausea, sense of doom, and feeling of extreme illness swept over me out of the blue. This time it was followed by a bout of diarrhea.The attack was short-lived but so intense, I had my finger on the 911 button.
I’ve had thorough work ups at a The Mayo Clinic. I was even tested for a rare adrenal tumor. All were normal. I’m an otherwise 73 year old runner. Can it merely be that as we grow older we can expect our systems to change, wear out? I do know that I used to be able to handle any stress gracefully; and now the slightest challenge throws me into flight or fight. I could literally spend most of my day prone and deep breathing! I hat to think this could last as long as I do!!

October, 2 2018 at 3:05 pm

Hi Anne,
Physical symptoms like this can be very upsetting. It sounds like you're healthy and active, so this experience must be all the more frustrating. It's good that you had medical evaluations (and at a top-notch facility to boot). While I'm unable to give medical advice or commentary, I can say that from a developmental psychology perspective, our brains and bodies do change throughout the lifespan. It's possible that you are experiencing panic attacks. It might also be possible that physical changes cause panic (thoughts of wearing out, developing illness, etc. are frightening); in turn, fears of having more panic attacks commonly fuel more. This is only intended to be food for thought. I would never try to diagnose you with such little information (plus at HealthyPlace, we can't do that anyway). It's something to consider as a possibility. If you think that you are experiencing a cycle of physical symptoms, panic, more symptoms, panic, etc., you might consider seeing a therapist. Panic attacks and other forms of anxiety are highly treatable, especially with professional help. It won't have to last as long as you do!

May, 5 2019 at 11:59 am

Hi my name is Bianca Williams I have been reading it article and it makes so much sense to ne be onist from having a operation on my heart in 2016 I suffred from anixery now I have anixitey disorder I suffer with the symptoms every day and through out the day heart palptions which bother me the most think I had bout 100 blood test between between 2 hospitals and eggs which all seem to be normal but I still get the symptoms so I'm jue5 stuck with what to do as this has been gojng on 3 years now and I have 3 kids which makes it hard for me

May, 6 2019 at 4:10 pm

Hi Bianca,
Medical problems, especially big ones like what you've experienced (and are still experiencing) absolutely cause and worsen anxiety. Have you considered seeing a therapist? Counselors and therapists can help you work through the anxieties as well as being a mom of 3 and going through heart surgery and a lot of testing. Face-to-face counseling is often very beneficial. If that's not a option, thought, you can also use online therapy services such as and (HealthyPlace isn't connected to these or other online counseling services, but we do know that online counseling in general can be helpful to many people.) Therapy will give you the tools to move forward past anxiety.

Anne Dodrill
September, 4 2018 at 9:33 pm

My physical symptoms are very different. I get occasional episodes of nervousness, nausea and a sense of doom. These “attacks” come and go quickly — within 30 seconds — but are so frightening. Usually, they come out of the blue, but I can also bring it on by having a worrisome thought too. The latter makes me think it truly is anxiety. All thoughts on this are welcome and thank you for this blog!

September, 6 2018 at 7:23 pm

Hi Anne,
You've just highlighted something frustrating about anxiety. "Anxiety" is a very broad term, and anxiety is a different experience for everyone. Of course "anxiety" does mean certain, standard, things, but how we each experience it is different. A full list of physical symptoms would be extremely lengthy and pretty useless because almost everything we can feel in our bodies would be on that list. To help determine if you have anxiety, consider your overall picture: your physical description (which, by the way, definitely fits anxiety attacks), your thoughts, your behaviors, how everything affects you.
Sometimes it truly can be hard to tell if something is anxiety. Visiting with a therapist can help you sort things out. Also, online tests can help you check your symptoms, too. One caveat: Online assessments aren't designed to diagnose any condition. They're just tools to help you sort out your experiences and see if you want to look for professional help. Healthy place has several anxiety tests if you're interested in trying them. This link takes you to the page with links to all tests. They're organized by condition, so just look for anxiety.
Thanks for being part of the conversations on Anxiety-Schmanxiety!

August, 25 2018 at 1:34 pm

Like Andy says, it’s also extremely physical for me as well, but it’s fueled by emotions and thoughts, and those thoughts are over thought to death. At its worst it’s crippling and debilitating. Sleep is HARD but you’re exhausted as well. I find that I have to make myself unclench my jaw, my feet, my hands, one at a time, and that doesn’t work for long. I wake up like that a LOT, too.
Thanks for an insightful article!

August, 25 2018 at 10:14 pm

Hi Nancy,
Yes -- this is anxiety! It's frustrating, isn't it. Have you tried progressive muscle relaxation? This in an exercise in which you sit or lie down and, starting at your feet and working your way to the top of your body, clench one area at a time. Curl and squeeze your toes/feet, hold for several seconds, and then slowly relax them. Move up to the calves and do the same. While you are doing this, be sure to breathe slowly and deeply. Let your mind concentrate on the breath and the sensation of your muscles tensing and relaxing. When anxious thoughts pop in (they will), don't fight with them or otherwise get caught up in them. Just notice them and let them float away. Initially, you'll spend a lot of time noticing thoughts and letting them drift away, but over time, your mind will focus on your breathing and the feeling in your muscles. Once you get used to it, it is very relaxing and calming for your mind and body. It works during the day as well as at night when you're trying to sleep. I hope you are finding lots of strategies to reduce this anxiety!

August, 24 2018 at 12:51 pm

For me, its a physical feeling. Like a wave of energy that makes me open my eyes, jolt, and take a deep breath in. Sometimes feels like I have forgotten to breathe or like my heart has stopped beating.

August, 25 2018 at 10:04 pm

Hi Andy,
I like your description. Anxiety really can make us stop breathing, or at least hold our breath without realizing it. I'm guilty of it. Recognizing this and then stopping to take slow, deep breaths is good for body and brain. The feeling that your heart has stopped beating is tied to breathing as well. Breathing slowly and paying attention to it has been shown to reduce anxiety!

September, 5 2018 at 6:18 pm

Tanya, since the list of symptoms for anxiety and warning signs of an impending heart attack can be the same, how do we tell the difference? I can’t run back and forth to the ER every time I get a wave of nausea, nervousness and a sense of doom.

September, 6 2018 at 7:02 pm

Hi Anne,
That is an important question. You're right -- the signs can be the same for anxiety/panic and a heart attack. What's often recommended is that when you begin to experience these symptoms (or have had them for a long time but haven't seen a doctor), make an appointment to see your doctor for a full check-up/physical. Explain everything that's been happening and that you want to make sure your not ignoring heart problems by assuming it's anxiety. If your exam and any testing shows a healthy cardio-vascular system, you can put this worry aside (one less anxious thought/emotion!). Getting your results in writing is a good idea because you'll have it to re-read whenever you need it. There will still be times, especially up front, that you will worry that you are having a heart attack, so if you can turn to your results, you can put your mind at ease. You can either ask the doctor to write down a summary of your check-up for you, or if he/she doesn't do that, just call the clinic's records office and ask for a copy of your record from the visit.
I hope this helps!

Anne Dodrill
September, 5 2018 at 6:12 pm

Andy, I’ve had these symptoms too and they are terrible. Do you ever get nausea along with the interrupted heartbeat?

Anne Dodrill
October, 2 2018 at 8:47 am

Andy, since my symptoms mimic yours, I am hoping you’ e found some insight into how to keep them at bay? I had one of my “spells” this morning - doom , nausea, intense anxiety. It washed over me like a wave. Heart felt like it was hesitating. Tempted to call 911. I took my anxiety meds, began to feel much calmer, but am concerned I’m wedded to drugs for life! How are you doing?

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