How Anxiety Can Be a Secondary Emotion

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Anxiety is a common secondary emotion. A secondary emotion is one that is experienced in place of another emotion that is difficult for the person to feel or express. A primary emotion is the initial reactions that we have. For example, anxiety can be a secondary emotion for anger, jealousy, hurt, disappointment, embarrassment, and sadness. You can also experience two secondary emotions at once, like anger and anxiety.

Understanding primary and secondary emotions helps us have a deeper understanding of ourselves and where the reactions are coming from.


Theoretically, this way of defending ourselves with secondary emotions protects us from having to deal with the more complicated and difficult feelings. However, we can easily make a mistake thinking that a situation or occurrence has made us anxious or angry when in fact the true emotion is something different.

For people with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), this can become very complicated. Most of life is experienced as anxiety, and it is a relatively expected and familiar feeling.

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Generalized Anxiety Disorder

People with chronic anxiety and worry that is uncontrollable and cause significant life problems often get diagnosed with GAD. People with GAD tend to have some sort of disposition to experience the world in a way that is anxiety-provoking, and most of their life experience is seen through this lens.

Mental Health Symptoms

According to the DSM-5, to be diagnosed with GAD, anxiety and worry must occur for at least six months.

Mental health signs and symptoms of GAD may include:

  • Carrying every option in a situation all the way out to its possible negative conclusion
  • Difficulty concentrating, or the feeling that your mind "goes blank"
  • Difficulty handling uncertainty or indecisiveness
  • Distress about making decisions for fear of making the wrong decision
  • Inability to relax, restlessness, and feeling keyed up or on edge
  • Persistent worrying or obsession about small or large concerns that are out of proportion to the impact of the event
  • Worrying about excessively worrying

Physical Health Symptoms

Physical signs and symptoms of GAD can include:

  • Being easily startled
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Irritability
  • Muscle tension or muscle aches
  • Sweating
  • Trembling, feeling twitchy
  • Trouble sleeping

If you or a loved one are struggling with generalized anxiety disorder, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Understanding Complex Emotions

In trying to understand what feelings (primary emotions) could be underneath your anxiety, the first thing to do is actually ask yourself that question. Allow yourself to be open to the possibility that you are hurt, disappointed, or grieving, rather than anxious.

In just considering that there are other feelings underneath your anxiety, you are taking great leaps forward in understanding yourself, having greater emotional intelligence and having the ability to make efforts to improve your situation based on other underlying feelings.

If you are left with some sort of fear, then your anxiety is likely in the right place. Give this a try and see if it can reduce your worry, and help you make life changes that will actually alleviate the true negative feelings you have, rather than miss your experience and cause continued worry for “no reason,” as many people with GAD tend to do.

2 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Fifth Edition). Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association; 2013.

  2. National Institute of Mental Health. Generalized Anxiety Disorder: When Worry Gets Out of Control.