Anxiety: Glossary

ADHD: Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder. A psychiatric disorder, more often in childhood, that involves a spectrum of inattentive symptoms (such as trouble paying attention or finishing projects) and/ or hyperactive symptoms (such as an inability to sit still or impulsive behavior). While most people have some of these symptoms, those with actual ADHD find that it significantly interferes with their life.

Aggression: A natural human emotion that involves angry, sometimes violent, ideas or behaviors.

Agoraphobia: A fear of open spaces or places from which escape might be difficult or help unavailable.

Amygdala: A part of the limbic system of the brain that is involved with learning, coordination of sensory input, and emotions.

Antidepressant: A psychiatric medication that is used to treat not only depression, but a wide range of anxiety symptoms as well. There are numerous classes of these medications, each with its own mechanism of action and set of side effects.

Antipsychotic: A psychiatric medication that is used to treat psychosis (such as hearing voices or paranoia), as well as severe anxiety. These kinds of medications can also be helpful in small doses for sleep disorders, depression, and anxiety.

Anxiolytic: A psychiatric medication that is used to help control anxiety. There are several types of these medications, some to treat the acute symptoms of a panic attack and others to help stabilize anxiety over a longer period of time.

Attachment: The process of bonding to another human being during the course of development. Usually, one attaches first to his or her primary caregivers (e.g., parents) and then to other important people in his or her life. Attachment that is too strong can lead to separation anxiety, and attachment that is too weak can lead to difficulty with intimacy.

Benzodiazepine: A type of medication used to treat anxiety. Common medications include clonazepam, lorazepam, diazepam, and alprazolam. They have the potential to become addictive and have potentially dangerous withdrawal symptoms if taken in large doses.

Biofeedback: A method of monitoring one’s physical responses to anxiety-inducing situations and attempting to lower the anxiety by reducing the physical response.

Computerized Axial Tomography (CAT) scan: An image of the body, such as the brain, that shows the anatomy of the brain tissue and can quickly identify masses or bleeding in the brain. It is relatively simple and involves only a few minutes in the actual scanner.

CBT: Cognitive behavioral treatment. A form of psychotherapy that has been proven to be particularly helpful in anxiety and depression. It involves the identification of thoughts that may be unrealistic or untrue (e.g., “If I fail this test, my parents won’t love me”) and then coming up with alternative thoughts (e.g., “If I fail this test, my parents might be disappointed, but I tried my hardest and that is the best I can do”) and behaviors.

Compulsion: A behavior, such as washing one’s hands multiple times an hour, in response to an obsessive thought. Usually, the compulsion is done in order to alleviate the anxiety associated with the thought.

Conscious: Thinking that is in one’s awareness. All thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that one is aware of thinking, feeling or doing, are conscious in contradistinction to unconscious.

Cortisol: A hormone secreted by the adrenal gland (a small gland on top of each kidney) in response to stressful situations, including anxiety, fear, excitement and physical stress.

Defense mechanism: A method of preventing harmful emotions from being felt. Defense mechanisms can be conscious, such as using humor to deal with a tragic situation, or unconscious, such as working excessively in order to avoid a painful situation at home.

Denial: A particular defense mechanism that involves a refusal to believe that something is true. This is out-side of the person’s control. For example, a woman who just learned that her son was arrested may use denial as a way to fend off her anger with and disappointment in her son, choosing instead to believe that the officers apprehended the wrong man.

Depression: A mood state in which one has numerous symptoms, including sleep and appetite disturbances, a decrease in energy level, concentration and interest, a feeling of sadness or isolation, and sometimes, thoughts of suicide. Depression is often accompanied by anxious symptoms. While most people feel “depressed” every now and then for a day or two, serious depression involves several weeks of these symptoms that significantly affect one’s functioning.

DNA: Deoxyribonucleic acid. The building block of all living creatures, it is a helical arrangement of proteins that carries one’s genetic code.

  1. O.:Doctor of Osteopathy. The degree that physicians who study osteopathy, or a system of medicine that studies the effects of the musculo-skeletal system on the rest of the body, obtain after four years of medical school.

DSM: The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (now in its fourth edition). This book contains a listing of all of the identified psychiatric diagnoses and their symptoms. It is used by mental health care professionals to help diagnose and treat patients and to communicate with other professionals in the field.

Dysmorphia: The idea that one’s body (or parts of one’s body) looks much worse or deformed than it actually is.

EEG: Electroe ncephalog ram. This is a kind of brain imaging technique, involving electrodes placed around the scalp, that measures brain waves and can detect abnormalities like seizures.

Ego: One of three theoretical parts of the mind, first established by Sigmund Freud, that involves a person’s ability to interact with reality, regulate mood, and participate in normal daily interactions. The other two parts are the id and the superego.

Fear: An uncomfortable state of feeling, associated with anxiety, that something bad will or might happen.

Flashbacks: A phenomenon, usually seen in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), in which a person has the sensation of reexperiencing a particular trauma. During the flashback, the person genuinely believes that he/she is being traumatized and is not aware of his/her real surroundings.

GABA: Gamma-aminobutyric acid. A neurotransmitter in the central nervous system that is primarily involved in inhibiting impulses. This is the chemical that keeps excitatory neurotransmitters, like ones that cause anxiety, from getting out of control.

Genes: Packets of DNA, located on the chromosomes in each living cell of the human body, that carry all the information about how any given cell is supposed to function. Information is inherited from a parent to an offspring through genes.

Genotype: The particular set of genes that a person has for a particular trait or feature. For example, the genotype for blue eyes is the set of genes that codes for that eye color. The actual blue color is called the phenotype, or how the genotype is represented.

Grief: A process during which a person mourns the loss of something, whether that be a loved one, a home, or even something less tangible, like self-esteem. If grief persists for a long time or becomes very serious, it can turn into depression.

Guilt: A feeling that one has done something wrong. Often accompanied by the feeling that one should be punished.

Hypnosis: A form of therapy in which a therapist induces a patient into an enhanced state of relaxation, possibly allowing for deeper memories or feelings to surface. This technique has been questioned recently in courts because of the propensity for people to be suggestible under hypnosis and possibly remember “false memories.”

Hypochondriasis: An exaggerated fear that one has an illness or disease based on a misinterpretation of a bodily symptom and without any medical basis. For example, one may think that he has a brain tumor because he has a headache.

IBS: Irritable bowel syndrome. A group of symptoms, often associated with anxiety and more frequently found in women, that involves abdominal pain, constipation, diarrhea, and other gastrointestinal complaints without any clear medical reason.

Id: One of three theoretical parts of the mind, first established by Sigmund Freud, that represents a person’s primal urges, such as sexual and aggressive impulses. The id is theoretically kept in control by the conscience, or the superego.

Imaging: The process of looking at parts of the human body that cannot be seen from the outside. Examples include x-rays, CAT scans and MRIs.

Insomnia: Difficulty with or an inability to sleep at night. Insomnia can involve trouble falling asleep, waking up too early and not being able to fall back asleep, or multiple awakenings during the night. Generally, people are then tired the next day. Associated with anxiety, depression, drug abuse, and medical conditions.

Limbic system: The part of the brain that controls emotional responses and experiences.

LPN: Licensed practical nurse. A basic-level nurse who has at least one year of training and has passed a state-administered licensing exam. LPNs are often supervised by an RN.

Masochism: A style of thinking and behavior that involves a desire, either conscious or unconscious, to be punished or to be submissive to another. While many people associate this term only with sexual activity, it can also apply to people who take on more work than they can handle, who push themselves to unbelievable limits, or who have difficulty saying, “No.”

MD: Medical doctor. The degree that all physicians attain after successfully completing four years of medical school.

Meditation: A process of deep relaxation and intense focus, originated in India, during which contentment, decreased physical tension, and reduced anxiety are attained.

Mindfulness: A state of being aware of all of the details of one’s surroundings. This technique is often used as a way to reach a state of meditation or relaxation.

Mood stabilizer: A psychiatric medication that is used to balance mood states. Mood stabilizers are particularly helpful in bipolar disorder (manic-depression) to prevent severe depression or dangerous manias.

MRI: Magnetic resonance imaging. A type of imaging in which parts of the body, such as the brain, are visualized in much more detail than on a CAT scan. The process of an MRI involves lying in a narrow tube for up to an hour; this can be difficult for people with claustrophobia.

Neurochemistry: The study of the mechanisms and chemical components of the nervous system, including brain structure and neurotransmitter function.

Neurosis: A state of mental functioning often associated with anxiety, either conscious or unconscious, that does not significantly impair reality testing or one’s personality. In its most basic sense, neurosis means responding to present stimuli with prior expectations.

Neurotransmitter: A chemical messenger in the nervous system that carries a message from one neuron to the next. Examples include serotonin and norepinephrine.

Norepinephrine: A neurotransmitter (chemical) that helps regulate mood and other physical symptoms of anxiety.

Obsession: A repetitive, intrusive thought that is difficult for one to get rid of, despite a knowledge that the thought is unreasonable. Sometimes obsessions can be relieved by compulsions.

Panic attack: A severe anxiety attack that can last for several minutes to an hour, usually without any obvious trigger, that involves multiple symptoms, including extreme fear, trouble breathing, increased heart rate, sweating, and shakes.

Pathologic: This refers to any medical condition that is considered abnormal.

Pathophysiology: The mechanisms of disease processes in the body and the ways in which disease alters normal structure and function.

PhD: Doctor of Philosophy. This degree is attained after one successfully completes years of coursework and research in a particular field (including psychology or social work).

Phenotype: The physical representation of a particular genetic code (genotype). For example, blue eyes are the phenotype of the genes encoding blue eye color.

Physiology: Having to do with normal functioning of body systems and organs.

Psychiatry/psychiatrist: The study, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of mental illness and behavioral disorders. Psychiatrists are medical doctors (MDs) who study and practice psychiatry.

Psychoanalysis: A form of intensive psychotherapy, usually 4-5 times per week, conducted with the patient lying on the couch, facing away from the analyst. Psychoanalysis is designed to help a patient recognize and work through unconscious conflicts such as ambivalent feelings toward a loved one or difficulty attaining intimacy in relationships. Sigmund Freud was the pioneer of this practice.

Psychodynamics: The study and science of how the mind develops and how the various parts of the mind interact with and influence each other.

Psychology/psychologist: The study of behavior and the processes underlying behavior. Psychologists are those who specialize in the study of psychology and have acquired their PhDs.

Psychoneuroimmunology: The study of the ways in which the neurological immunological mental systems interface (for example, getting a cold during times of high stress).

Psychopharmacotherapy: The use of medication, prescribed by psychiatrists, to treat mental illness.

Psychosis: A state of thinking in which reality is distorted in a severe way. Examples would be hearing voices, experiencing paranoia that the FBI is following you, or an inability to link thoughts logically together. Psychosis can be caused by many things, including mental illness, drug abuse, and medical conditions.

Psychotherapy: A general term to describe many different types of psychological and psychiatric treatments that involve communication and talking between the patient and the therapist.

RN: .Registered nurse. A nurse who has 2-4 years of education and training and is responsible for basic and advanced nursing care.

Rumination: The process of going over and over the same thought in one’s mind to the exclusion of other thoughts and without any clear benefit. Often a symptom of anxiety.

Sadism: A style of thinking and behavior that involves a desire, either conscious or unconscious, to punish or to be dominant over others. While many people associate this term only with sexual activity, it can also apply to people who are intentionally cruel without any apparent self-benefit.

Self-mutilation: The practice of injuring oneself, usually by cutting, burning, or piercing. The underlying etiology of such behavior can be varied, but some self-mutilate in an attempt to control inner feelings of emptiness; the pain associated with the mutilation helps one to feel “alive.”

Serotonin: A neurotransmitter (chemical) in the central nervous system that is involved in many different activities, including motor function, mood regulation, and perception.

Shame: A feeling that accompanies the uncovering of humiliating or embarrassing thoughts or behaviors.

Somatization: A process by which a person expresses emotional discomfort, most commonly anxiety, in the form of somatic, or bodily, symptoms. For example, a person might complain of persistent abdominal pain in the face of an upcoming transition, without any medical explanation. Once the transition has stabilized, the abdominal pain may disappear.

SRI: Serotonin reuptake inhibitor. A type of medication that is used to treat depression and anxiety by decreasing the rate at which serotonin is metabolized in the nervous system, resulting in higher concentrations of that neurotransmitter.

Stress: A general term to describe any event or situation that raises a person’s anxiety.

Stimulant: A class of amphetamine-based medications that is used to treat ADHD and can sometimes help with the treatment of depression. Other stimulants that are not used for treatment include caffeine, nicotine, and cocaine.

Superego: Also known as the “conscience,” one of three theoretical parts of the mind, first established by Sigmund Freud, that represents a person’s internal moral compass. The superego keeps the impulses from the id in check so that a person can conform to societal, cultural, moral, and ethical expectations. The superego also helps regulate guilt.

TCM: Traditional Chinese medicine.

Temperament: The style of interaction and attachment with which a person is naturally born. Some people are naturally easy going, while others are “slow to warm up.”

TMJ: Temporomandibular joint. The joint that connects the jaw to the skull. This joint can become irritated and inflamed if a person grinds his or her teeth excessively or clenches his or her jaw, usually due to anxiety. The irritation can lead to pain and headaches.

Unconscious: The thought processes of which one is not aware. Dreams are a good representation of unconscious thoughts. One of the goals of psychoanalysis is to help the unconscious thoughts become conscious.


Selections from the book: “100 Questions & Answers about Anxiety”, Khleber Chapman Attwell, MD, MPH, 2005.

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