How often do we hear about anxiety? It has become one of the most common words my coaching clients use to describe their emotional state. The term usually appears as a noun, but note that its meaning is different from the adjective ‘anxious’. ‘Being anxious’, refers to an urge, or impatience to act, to do something.
The noun ‘anxiety’, on the other hand, projects a sense of enforced unease, clouding our inner vision and often preventing us from acting. It is almost as the two terms mapped its very opposites.
What’s in the word?
The English term has a rich parenthood among older indo-european languages. These terms usually pinpoint the physical aspect of various experiences, later metaphorically mapped onto the blurry notion of ‘anxiety’.
In Avestan (the language of ancient Persia), the related term ązah– was used to describe ‘constriction of the throat, oppression, need, narrowness or imprisonment’. In Latin, the word angustus meant ‘narrow’, while angustia, when used in plural, reflected the meaning of ‘narrowness, oppression or difficulties’. The related verb anguere meant to ‘choke, squeeze, torment’.
Similarly, in proto-indoeuropean, the term ang̑h– meant ‘narrow, constrict’, while ang̑hes referred to – ‘oppression, distress’. The related notion of ‘tightness’ still appears to this day in some languages to describe the meaning of anxiety. Cold English used the term angsumnes – with its root close to modern German Angst, which means ‘fear’.
However, ‘anxiety’ itself appears in modern English only in the 16th century, and is used to describe “apprehension caused by danger, misfortune, or error, uneasiness of mind respecting some uncertainty, a restless dread of some evil.”
Within a century, the term was employed to describe pathological conditions, and psychiatry adopted it in the early 20th century. These various definitions illustrate the foggy nature of the discomfort that the concept brings with it.
We know that the state of anxiety can be vaguely detected by observing the reactions in our physical body – loosely reflected in those historic uses of the term. Anxiety tends to be associated with muscle tension, chronic fatigue, sleep disturbance and general inability to relax.