A Brief History of Anxiety

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Mental health is a hot topic in the media right now, especially given the increases in anxiety that we’ve seen during the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, The New York Times has an entire section devoted to Mental Health and Disorders like anxiety, which is kind of bananas considering there are entire towns and cultures that still don’t talk about mental health or are less likely seek treatment for it. However, mental health issues like anxiety are not a new phenomena. In fact, discussions about anxiety date back to the days of Hippocrates, where Latin and Greek physicians were able to clearly distinguish this presentation of anxiety symptoms from other affect disorders, like depression.

Treatment of anxiety also dates back to the same era. Hippocrates recommended stoicism and “peace of mind” to treat anxiety, and though there are philosophical clashes between Epicurean and Stoic philosophers, both set forth strategies to become “anxiety-free” through methods that resemble modern day cognitive therapy. Cicero wrote about worry, Seneca suggested the combination of past, present, and future as an antidote to anxiety (hello, mindfulness, is that you?), and it’s plausible that even the greatest orators still trembled before giving a speech.


Let’s do a little digging and examine the roots of this thing called “anxiety.” The ancient Greek word for anxiety was ἄγχω (ánkhōthe literal translation “to choke”) and the corresponding verb “to constrict;” a related word angustus, translates to “narrow” (Crocq). Given the roots of the word, my guess is that if you’ve experienced anxiety (whether clinical anxiety or just the typical busy-brain and trouble-sleeping thing the might before you have an unreasonably early flight”) you’ll agree that the name is on brand; the physiological experiences of anxiety can feel a lot like choking and our perspective (and the things we do) get real narrow when anxiety is around! The Latin roots of anxiety is anxius, with the literal translation “solicitous, distressed, troubled” adds an additional nuanced layer to the word’s meaning by implying a cognitive element to what is otherwise a physiological experience. A markedly different experience is that of fear, a word that has the Latin roots perīculum, with the literal translation “danger, risk, trial;” Perhaps implied in these translations is the subtle but important distinction between the experience of anxiety and the experience of fear – the pitting of “soliticious” or a showing of interest or concern against “danger or risk.”

These distinctions still inform the way we discuss anxiety and fear in the mental health world today, wherein the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders (DSM-V) states that anxiety is an emotional response to an anticipated future threat and fear is the emotional response to a perceived or actual present or imminent threat.

From Roots to Leaf

Our voyage begins in antiquity, where anxiety first emerges as a significant human experience. Ancient philosophers, such as Aristotle and Seneca, reflected on the nature of anxiety, recognizing it as an inherent aspect of human life. They believed that understanding and managing anxiety were essential for achieving tranquility and happiness. Ancient civilizations, like the Greeks and Romans, viewed anxiety as a result of an imbalance between the individual and their surroundings, emphasizing the importance of harmony between body, mind, and soul. The Hippocratic Corpus (i.e. medical works attributed to Hippocrates and his peeps) described the phobia of a man who was afraid of “the flute girl.” For a cool minute now, both anxiety and fear were deemed worth talking about and considered medical disorder worth treating.

Religious and Cultural Influences:

As societies evolved, so did the interpretation of anxiety. Religion played a significant role in shaping attitudes towards anxiety. In Christianity, for example, anxiety was perceived both as a test of faith and as a sign of detachment from God’s will. Theologians and religious scholars throughout history grappled with the spiritual implications of anxiety and how to address it through prayer and devotion.

Middle Ages and Renaissance:

In the Middle Ages, anxiety took on different dimensions. The uncertain and tumultuous times led to an increase in anxiety disorders. Some believed that anxiety was the result of demonic possession or punishment for sins, leading to the practice of exorcisms and penance. In the Renaissance era, advancements in medicine and psychology led to a shift in the understanding of anxiety as a psychological phenomenon, although supernatural beliefs still held sway in certain circles.

The Birth of Modern Psychiatry:

The advent of the Enlightenment in the 18th century brought with it new perspectives on anxiety. Philosophers like Immanuel Kant and Søren Kierkegaard delved into the philosophical roots of anxiety, exploring its relationship to freedom and individuality. As the 19th century dawned, the field of psychiatry began to emerge, and figures like Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung made groundbreaking contributions to the study of anxiety and its connection to the unconscious mind.

The 20th Century and Beyond:

In the 20th century, advancements in psychology and neuroscience propelled the understanding of anxiety to new heights. World Wars and other global events further illuminated the impact of anxiety on human mental health. New therapeutic approaches like cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and medications were developed to address anxiety disorders.

Today, anxiety disorders are among the most prevalent mental health conditions worldwide, affecting millions of people. The stigma surrounding mental health has significantly reduced, leading to more open discussions and increased access to treatment.


The history of anxiety is a tapestry woven into the very fabric of human existence. From its ancient philosophical roots to modern medical science, anxiety has been a subject of contemplation, curiosity, and concern. Through various cultural and historical lenses, we have witnessed the evolving understanding and treatment of anxiety. While there is a dark patch in the literature on anxiety between Greek and Latin medical writings and modern psychiatry, we can trust that the human experience of anxiety remained steady . That’s roughly 2,482 documented years of mankind’s attempts to get rid of anxiety and yet we still find ourselves suffering with anxiety.

As we move forward, armed with knowledge and empathy, it is essential to continue the dialogue surrounding mental health. By learning from the lessons of history and embracing a compassionate approach, we can strive to create a more understanding and supportive world for those navigating the complexities of anxiety.

If you or someone you know is suffering with anxiety and need some support, don’t hesitate to reach out to us. Our fully licensed specialists can support you on your mental health journey, and if the money matters don’t add up for one of our fully licensed specialists, reach out to our Low Cost Therapy program and lets see if we can get you hooked up with an intern.