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Encyclopedia of Psychology Alan E. Kazdin, PhD, Editor-in-Chief


Theoretical Perspectives on Anxiety

Generally speaking, however, the diverse theoretical perspectives on anxiety can be divided into four general approaches: psychodynamic, expressive-behavioral, biological, and cognitive. Each of these theories explains aspects of anxiety, and all are needed to understand the phenomenon fully.

An influential biological theory of anxiety was proposed in The Neuropsychology of Anxiety (New York, 1982) by Jeffrey Gray, who stated that anxiety stems from activation of the behavioral inhibition system (BIS). As its name implies, the BIS inhibits behavior in response to threatening stimuli. People who are high in trait anxiety have very reactive behavioral inhibition systems.

Genetic factors create a biological vulnerability to anxiety, the manifestation of which is determined by environmental factors. Thus, individuals who are genetically predisposed to experience anxiety will be more likely than those with a low vulnerability to anxiety to interpret internal and external stimuli as threatening.


Because of the multifaceted nature of anxiety, no one of these theories adequately describes all of the factors related to its onset and maintenance. Genetic predispositions, early childhood experiences with uncontrollable events, certain kinds of cognitions and information processing, all contribute to creating anxiety

Cultural Variations

Although anxiety is a universal emotion, the experience, expression, and interpretation of anxiety vary across cultures. Thus, not surprisingly, the prevalence rates of particular types of anxiety vary across cultures. Societies that emphasize conformity and interpersonal evaluation show higher proportions of social anxiety, for example, than societies that place less importance on the evaluations of others. Depending on the standards of a particular culture, what is considered normal in one culture might be considered pathological anxiety in another.

In spite of some cross-cultural variability in the experience of anxiety, facial expressions of fear and anxiety are universally recognized, as discussed by Ekman and Friesen in Unmasking the Face (Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1975). Moreover, some fears, such as the fear of snakes and children’s fear of strangers, are believed to be uniformly experienced across cultures, lending support to theories concerned with the genetic basis of some types of anxiety.

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