Defining Anxiety


All of us experience some degree of anxiety (i.e. fear and worry) from time to time. When faced with a stressful situation (e.g. first day of school, giving a job interview or preparing for an exam) it is expected, normal and useful that we experience a little bit of anxiety. Anxiety increases our alertness, energy and focus which improves our performance. Anxiety experienced within the normal range is short lived and we return to a calm state when the stressful situation is over.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5th edition (DSM-5) [American Psychiatric Publishing (APA), 2013], is a handbook that is used by professionals around the world to diagnose mental disorders. The DSM–5 explains that anxiety becomes disordered when the fear and the worry is out of proportion to the situation at hand. The overestimation of the danger in the situation and the fear of being embarrassed, humiliated or failing is so great that anxiety symptoms become more intense, persistent and chronic. Also, the anxiety is beyond that which would be expected for the individual’s developmental level and interferes with social, academic, occupation or other areas of functioning (APA, 2013).

Below are some of the common types of Anxiety Disorders with a brief definition of each. The definitions are adapted from the (DSM-5)(APA, 2013):

  • Separation anxiety disorder – Excessive fear and worry about anticipated or actual separation from caregiver/s.
  • Selective mutism – Excessive fear or anxiety resulting in an inability to speak in some social situations, despite being able to speak in other situations.
  • Specific phobia – Excessive, irrational fear or anxiety about or avoidance of facing a specific object, or situation.
  • Social anxiety disorder – Excessive fear or anxiety about or avoidance of social or performance situations that involve the possibility of negative judgements and evaluation by others which may result in embarrassment, humiliation, rejection or causing offence to others.
  • Panic disorder – Characterised by sudden and repeated episodes of intense fear and panic attacks.
  • Generalised anxiety disorder – Excessive and persistent worry about different aspects of life.

Causes of Anxiety

There is no single cause, rather a number of risk factors that contribute to its development. Some of the factors include:

  • Genetics (i.e. differences in one’s genetic code and/or inherited genes that makes Students with Anxious Behaviours prone to anxiety) that make the individual vulnerable to developing Anxiety disorder.
  • Brain chemistry (i.e. imbalance in chemicals in the brain that regulate feelings and physical reactions).
  • Personality factors (e.g. being a perfectionist, having low self-esteem, becoming easily flustered or wanting to control everything).
  • Medical conditions (e.g. diabetes, thyroid problems, heart disease and respiratory disorders).
  • Stressful events such as loss (e.g. death of a loved one or a pet, parents’ divorce), major life change (e.g. change of school, moving to a different school, moving to a new country) and leading a high stress lifestyle (e.g. individual is doing too many extracurricular activities).
  • Drug and alcohol abuse.

Associated Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties

The individual may exhibit some, or all of following:

  • Show excessive fear, concern or worry about particular tasks/situations/places.
  • Avoid particular subjects/activities/places.
  • Appear extremely self-conscious or uncomfortable in social situations.
  • Refuse to join in particular subjects/activities/places.
  • Socially isolate self, withdraw or appear very shy in social situations.
  • Often ask to go to sick bay due to physical complaints (e.g. headaches, stomach aches).
  • Trouble with concentrating, appear distracted or forgetful.
  • Require lots of reassurance.
  • Get easily frustrated and is reluctant to ask for help.
  • Bea perfectionist or procrastinate and take longer to complete a task.
  • Decline in performance.
  • Engage in unhealthy, risky or self-destructive behaviour (e.g. drug or alcohol abuse).
  • Be very sensitive to perceived or real criticism and corrective feedback.

To learn how to support individuals with persistent anxious behaviours or with a diagnosis of an Anxiety Disorder please refer to: Bhargava, D. (2018). Positive Behaviour Support Strategies for Students with Anxious Behaviours: A Step by Step Guide to Assessing – Managing-Preventing Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties. Perth, WA: Behaviour Zen Pty Ltd.


American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th Ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.