Anxiety is an adaptive reaction that everyone experiences from time to time, including animals. Anxiety alarms us of situations and circumstances that involve some threat of danger, and it enables our body to respond in ways that help keep us safe. This response is a useful survival mechanism, helping us to avoid or even prevent dangerous situations, and is known as the Fight or Flight Response.

Murphy and Leighton (2009) suggest that anxiety is problematic when it becomes “a fearful apprehension that is mainly out of proportion to external circumstances accompanied by autonomic hyperactivity symptoms such as palpitations, sweating and other indicators of the body’s alarm system.”

So anxiety is a normal part of the human condition and is experienced by everyone at one time or another. It is only when anxious reactions become disproportionate to the situations and circumstances faced that it is viewed as problematic.

The Fight or Flight Response

The fight or flight response is a primitive inbuilt response to stress or threat. Also referred to as hyperarousal or an acute stress response, it occurs in both animals and humans, enabling us to deal with threatening situations by preparing us for action. This is very useful if attacked because our bodies will be highly alert and strong, allowing us to either stay and fight the enemy or flee as fast as we can.

When the fight or flight response occurs, the sympathetic nervous system goes into action, releasing the hormone adrenalin into the bloodstream. This causes the heart to beat faster to deliver oxygen to the muscles, which become tense and ready for action. Breathing becomes more rapid and shallow, increasing oxygen supply to the blood.

The digestive system slows down to divert energy to the muscles and in more extreme hyper aroused states the body may even discharge the content of bladder and bowls to further prepare the organism for intense fighting or fleeing. Sweating also increases to keep the muscles cool for when they begin to work hard. In this way, the organism enters a state of increased alertness, vigilance and a preparedness for some form of physical action involving either fighting the threat or fleeing from the threat.

The fight or flight response evolved in prehistoric times when survival relied on both aggressive, combative behaviour and flight from a predator. In modern times, this response has remained with us and has been recognised as the first stage of the general adaptation syndrome that regulates stress responses among vertebrates and other organisms (Andrews, Crino, Hunt, Lampe, & Page, 1996).

Fear vs Anxiety

Research has proposed a more distinct difference between fear and anxiety, although they produce similar responses to danger. Like anxiety, fear can be good for us. It protects us by activating a massive fight or flight response from the automatic nervous system which motivates us to escape or possibly attack the perceived threat (Barlow & Durand, 2009). Fear is defined as a response to a specific-linked threat whereas anxiety is defined as a non-specific threat linked defensive state.

It is then fair to argue that fear is an immediate emotional reaction to a known or definite danger where as anxiety is a mood state characterised by apprehension and loss of control regarding possible dangers that may arise from a potential threat as opposed to a real threat (Barlow & Durand, 2009; Butcher, Mineka & Hooley, 2007; Gordon & Hen 2004).

Although the focus of the response is different (real vs. imagined/potential danger), fear and anxiety are interrelated. Fear causes anxiety, and anxiety can cause fear. Although subtle, the distinctions between the two can provide a better understanding of the two emotions (Ankrom, 2009).

Another type of fear response is panic. Panic involves a sudden, time limited, experience of intense fear triggering cognitive, physiological and behavioural responses that may be the result of encountering a natural disaster or some other kind of severe life threatening experience.

Changes in heart rate, breathing, vision, and hearing are all common features of panic (Barlow & Durand, 2009; Ankrom 2008; Mineka & Hooley, 2007). Panic is viewed as problematic when it becomes disproportionate to the situations and circumstances being faced or when the cause is unidentifiable.

When Anxiety Becomes Excessive

The fight or flight response was designed for use in short-term situations, after which the body would return to a normal level of function. However for about one in 12 people, anxiety can become so severe and prolonged it can impair daily functioning.

For these people, anxiety means being constantly fearful, and worried or being so scared of certain situations that he or she is unable to face them. Severe anxiety can lead to other problems like depression, relationship difficulties, or drug and alcohol abuse (University of Sydney, 2007).

Anxiety disorders are now the most common psychological disorders affecting both children and adults (Anxiety Disorders Association of America, 2007). In our modern-day world, the fight or flight response is seldom required for survival. Hence when faced with a situation which, although stressful, poses no real physical danger, this reaction can often be a false alarm which is not turned off because there is no fighting or fleeing required.

In such situations, it is common to experience an ongoing feeling of dread, fear or a sensation of being ‘stressed out’. This is the result of anxiety which has become excessive and therefore maladaptive. A common response to such anxiety is to worry about it, which further increases anxiety levels.