Anxiety is a real physiological and mental/emotional phenomenon. We know when we are anxious when we feel apprehensive, keyed-up, worried, restless, suffer from distressing mental images, memories, and sometimes when we perspire or have insomnia or a rapid heart rate and shortness of breath. When we have these experiences, we do what we can to reduce our distress. Sometimes we avoid certain places, people and tasks because we are anxious.
Indeed there are many ways we notice anxiety. What is less obvious, however, and what we tend not to notice, especially when we are in the midst of anxiety, is that anxiety really is an internal experience and not exactly the events and people and places and things about which we feel uneasy. Anxiety is arousal that is triggered by external cues and sometimes internal cues such as thought, feelings, interpretations. Anxiety happens inside us even if triggered by events, places, people and circumstances in the environment. The good news is that we can work with our internal experiences and we really do not need to suffer even if we are anxious. Further, when we pay attention to our thoughts and feelings when we are anxious, for example when we focus on breathing and counting or saying mantra when we are anxious, we can begin to observe that anxiety as a state of arousal is not the stories—beliefs, interpretations— we tell ourselves, and not the pictures we imagine or the events and circumstances we fear while we are anxious. Indeed, anxiety is not the same thing as thoughts and emotions, and it can be experienced more clearly as just a signal, albeit a distressing one, but a more harmless and less daunting state of sensation and attention, and not the things, events and circumstances that we used to take ourselves away from, guard up against and around which we engage in rituals, magical thinking, avoidance and sometimes compulsive behaviors. Mindfulness practice serves us well to know the difference between anxiety and fear, anxiety as a signal versus anxiety as a state of suffering. .