Emotion Series: Fear and Anxiety

All of us experience the sensation of fear and anxiety at various points throughout our lives. Fear is caused by a real and understood threat, like fear of being unable to cope or protect oneself, or fear of a real threat if attacked or assaulted. Fear is specific, immediate, and innate. Anxiety, in contrast, is vaguer. It relates to symbolic, psychological, or social situations rather than actual physical danger. Identifying a clear distinction between these two related by distinct emotions can help us develop healthy response patterns:


What is Fear?

Fear has been hard-wired into our nervous system due to its critical role in the survival of the individual. Fear is associated with immediately present physical danger and it compels a person to escape from the threatening circumstances.  The sympathetic nervous system is aroused, adrenaline released and the complex mind/body response takes form of a flight, fight, or freeze. People who have experienced this often remember the moment when the accident or disaster happened. Without much of a conscious thinking they immediately engaged in a survival-oriented action; they had great strength and they felt no pain. Driven by fear all protective mechanisms were initiated in order to maximize their chances of survival. After the person escapes from the danger the intensity of fear responses significantly diminishes.


How Anxiety Differs from Direct Fear

Anxiety is entirely different in its mechanism of action. It feeds off as a cognitive response to psychological, social, or symbolic situations that make a person uncomfortable or nervous. It’s a response to uncertainty/unpredictability that arises when the sense of self or self-integrity are threatened.  

Daily life can inspire feelings of anxiety. We may become anxious about an upcoming performance review at work, anxious about paying rent, anxious about a first date. As your mind predicts what could go wrong – I’ll get fired, I’ll get evicted, I’ll never find love –  your body responds to the stress physically, which is why you feel a knot in your stomach or start sweating.

Severe anxiety can impede enjoyment of life, as anxiety about work, money, social interactions, or romantic relationships prevents you from pursuing these avenues fully.


Panic Attacks and Anxiety Attacks: What’s the Difference?

Panic attacks are associated with a heightened level of anxiety, which is usually instigated after a traumatic or stressful event occurs (even without warning signs). They arise unexpectedly and often, the human body and mind don’t know how to adequately react to such a change due to the seemingly randomized nature of panic attacks. Symptoms include heart palpitations and an increased heart rate, excessive sweating, trembling, dizziness, nausea, and chills, among others.

Anxiety attacks are less severe but equally unpredictable in nature. They can stem from the same originating factors as panic attacks, as well as less intense ones such as social awkwardness, embarrassment, loneliness, and sadness. Symptoms are less direct, including muscle tension, disturbed sleep patterns, fatigue and restlessness, dizziness, shortness of breath, and irritability, among others. Additionally, anxiety attacks tend to occur over a longer and more consistent period of time due to correlating to events of high-degree stress responses.


Helpful Tips

It is important to make it a point to find, develop, and implement healthy response patterns for your anxiety that produce positive results. This requires experimentation and a willingness to move forward, and it’s important to bear in mind that the world is full of pressures and tangible reasons for concern such as financial security and health-related woes.

Healthy routines such as meditation, partaking in a relaxing and mentally “distracting” hobby, or exercising, can better mitigate anxiety. In fact, staying active helps to rejuvenate the mind as well as the body, enabling for you to feel better about yourself and more easily develop an optimistic outlook on everyday life. Regardless of your intended treatment method, it’s important to transfer negative energy into a malleable and inherently positive form of thinking as a means of managing stress and improving your mood.

We cannot predict what life has in store for us, and it is a natural human reaction to play through the possibilities, good and bad. When anxiety is overwhelming or begins to affect your daily life in a negative way, the issue may need to be addressed.