What is the difference between Fear and Anxiety: Part – 2

What is the difference between fear and anxiety? As I described in last week’s article, in my counselling practice in Bishops Stortford I’m often approached by people seeking assistance who use those words together as a single phrase: “Fear and Anxiety”. In that article, I described the definition of fear as I see it. If you’ve not read it, I would strongly suggest clicking here and having a quick look at it before you read further into this week’s article discussing anxiety. Next week I’ll go on to talk about my approach to assisting people suffering from either Fear, Anxiety or both in my Bishops Stortford counselling practice.

Anxiety, what is it? The NHS define it as: A feeling of unease, such as worry or fear that can be mild or severe. Those words are important, a feeling of unease… Notice the distinct difference in that definition from the NHS’s definition of fear: A feeling induced by perceived danger or threat that occurs in certain types of organisms, which causes a change in metabolic and organ functions and ultimately a change in behavior, such as fleeing, hiding, or freezing from perceived traumatic events.

Fear creates a distinct physical reaction, whilst anxiety produces unease.

Looking back at last week’s article, you’ll find an example I’ve given of sitting in an aeroplane, strapped to a sky-diving instructor getting ready to shuffle out the door for a tandem jump. In that example, I tried to describe very clearly how, presented with immediate danger, the physical reactions produced by fear were at their strongest.

Imagine however, that this very same tandem sky-diving jump is still 12 weeks away. Right now, you’re sitting in your most comfy chair watching telly with a nice cup of tea. There is no immediate danger. Nothing terrible is about to happen, but you’re sitting there thinking about the jump ahead and wondering if you’ve been foolish by putting your name down (not to mention that deposit!). This worry, this unease, is “Anxiety”. There are no serious physical symptoms stopping you from quietly sipping your tea. Right now, you’re in complete control of all of your bodily functions with the possible exception of a few tummy flip flops. This is because right now, you’re not fearful. You are projecting ahead to the event itself and wondering: “Will I be able to do it?”, “Will I chicken out?”, “What if I get there and my knees turn to jelly?”, What if I get on board that plane and completely freeze?”. In short you’re asking yourself: “What if I get to the point of having to perform that particular task (jumping out of the plane in this instance) and the physical symptoms of fear overwhelm me? What if I am so immobilised by those symptoms that I won’t be able to function fully?”  You see, anxiety isn’t fear, it is a worry that we will not be able to manage the physical symptoms of fear when the danger event arrives.

This distinction, that fear is a reaction to the immediate, and anxiety is unease caused from the worry that we will not be able to manage our reactions when we finally get to the event itself is important. Making this distinction enables us to separate out these feelings. Making this distinction allows us to look at our anxieties and see if there are steps that can be taken to ease them. Steps that might just free us up to experience more of each day rather than finding ourselves twisted up with worry about a danger that is still some way off.

If you have a think about all the things you feel anxious about, you’ll recognise that none of them are imminent. All are at least a little way off, and your worries are generally to do with whether or not you’ll be up to whatever it is when that thing arrives. If we’re anxious about a speaking engagement, we’ll likely be worried that we’ll forget what we’re supposed to say, or that our lips will turn to rubber and our knees to jelly. If we’re anxious about a job interview, we’ll be worried about much the same things. Anxiety is a worry that whenever the thing is that we see as dangerous in some way finally arrives, we’ll not be up to the task in some way. Our bodies will let us down. We’ll not be able to do the thing we need to do, and we’re afraid we’ll look foolish and fail.

As uncomfortable as those feelings are, they are not the same as fear. Fortunately, there are a great many things we can do to ease the “unease” caused by anxiety. Of course, it must be said that it isn’t possible to completely alleviate it in all circumstances, but at least it can be made better in most cases. Next week, I’ll discuss what some of those techniques are.