Distinguishing anxiety from fear

Distinguishing fear from anxiety

Distinguishing anxiety from fear. Many people come into counselling initially describing problems of anxiety and/or panic attacks. This blog is an introduction to how I work with fear and anxiety, and more specifically how I, as a therapist, distinguish the two from each other. I cannot stress enough that what you are about to read is my own professional take on these feelings. It is an explanation of how I, personally define and separate the two from each other. I believe it is important to make this distinction clear because most people seem to use these words interchangeably and it has not been my experience that it is helpful to merge them together to describe a single feeling. Unfortunately, it is impossible in such a short article to go into too much detail as to how to resolve these emotions. There are simply far too many differences between individuals to have a one-size-fits-all solution that can be described in 300 words. I do promise however to provide a greater explanation of how I work with these two feelings in a future blog post to come soon. For now though dear reader, please allow me to elaborate a bit more as to how I view and define these often very debilitating (but very different), feelings.

The most concise starting point for explaining the distinction between these two feelings is to describe them in terms of “proximity to danger”. As an example of what I mean, let’s pretend for a moment that we are scheduled to do a presentation for a large group of people (and we’re not the most comfortable public speakers in the world). Let’s then further pretend that right now we are sitting in the wings just off-stage waiting for our name to be called (literally any second now). I don’t know about you, but I’d be nervous. In all likelihood I would be somewhat worried that when my name is called I’ll go out there and freeze. I might be worried that my knees or hands will tremble uncontrollably, or that my lips will turn to rubber, or that I will simply forget everything I had prepared to say. Were any of those things to happen, there is the distinct probability that I’d look like a blithering idiot in front of an auditorium full of people. Now I don’t care what anybody might say about this, but for those uncomfortable with public speaking, this is danger personified! Sure, we might not be in psychical danger, nor in fear of our lives, but we would most certainly be in psychological danger – and this is a danger that should never be poo pooed away or discounted.

The main point in the scenario above is that our proximity to danger is very close indeed. We are literally seconds away from the thing that might cause us harm – going out on stage. All those worries I described are what are commonly seen as “fear reactions”. To my way of thinking, “fear” is a feeling we have when danger is imminent. Maybe we are just about to go on-stage. Maybe we’re standing in the doorway of an airplane with someone behind us shouting “JUMP!” on that ill-advised sky-diving event we bought online, or maybe we’re just about to ask that person from the office we’ve been quietly fancying for months out for a drink. Whatever the danger, if we’re talking about the feeling of “fear”, we’re talking about something that is just about to happen. Importantly, if you look at the specific fear reactions I described being worried about, you’ll see that they all have one thing in common: they are all concerns that my fear will be so overpowering that I will lose control over some aspect of my body. I’m worried about losing control of the free movement of my muscles (freezing). I’m concerned I won’t be able to control my knees, my hands, my lips, or my memory. Essentially, I am worried that my body will let me down and that no matter how much preparation I may have done for the event, I won’t be able to handle it.

Stepping away from that scenario for a moment, let’s pretend instead that this public speaking engagement is still three weeks away. Instead of standing in the wings waiting to go onstage, right now we are sitting in front of our computer screens reading this blog. Sitting back in our chair, we project forward three weeks and see ourselves on stage. Doing so we might even be having many of those same worries as described in the scenario above. There is a big difference though. In this second scenario, as we project forward to the event, we are not anywhere near imminent danger. The event is still weeks away. What we are doing in this situation is worrying that when we do finally arrive at the danger point, that our bodies will let us down then. Our knees are not trembling right now and our lips haven’t turned to rubber. We still have plenty of time to work on what we’re going to say and if we wanted to, we could just go for a walk right now and forget about all of this for a while. This is what I would call anxiety. We are not yet fearful, because we are not yet in danger. Instead, we are fearful of what will happen once we become frightened. Anxiety therefore, is “worry about our ability to manage the physical symptoms of fear” should they occur.

The thing about anxiety is that the moment we stop thinking about the danger, it goes away. We might distract ourselves, have a drink, cancel our reservations for Sky-diving flight 223 or take any number evasive steps to make it go away. Of course, there are some steps that are more helpful than others, and if all we do is avoid thinking about the event until a few moments before it happens, then we are kind of inviting trouble for ourselves in the form of our fear reactions, but that is a blog for another time.