A single man sits in amongst empty chairs and thinks before a group therapy session

WHEN I was asked to write this article, my heart started beating faster, my hands started shaking and my thoughts went into overdrive coming up with what felt like hundreds of objectively sensible reasons why I couldn’t do it. I could tell you that as chief subeditor at New Scientist I don’t often get a chance to write. But the truth is I rarely write because I am very anxious about it. What if the people I contact don’t respond? What if I write something stupid? What if I am stupid? What if, what if, what if.

Clearly, I chose to write this article, partly because I am stubborn and hate that these anxious feelings hold me back from doing things I might enjoy, and partly because I find that doing the things that make me anxious helps me overcome that feeling (see “Five scientific ways to help reduce feelings of anxiety”). But my main motivation was to answer questions that have been bothering me for years: what exactly is anxiety and what is happening in my body and brain to cause this feeling?

Answering that first question is difficult, in part because there is no one way to feel anxious. “I’d say there’s as many types of anxiety as there are people in the world,” says Oliver Robinson, head of the Anxiety Lab at University College London.

We do know everyone experiences anxiety – it helps prime us to be ready in possibly risky situations. Consider walking home alone in the dark, where that feeling…

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