The Important Difference Between Anxiety and Fear
Fear is one of the seven core emotions on the Change Triangle, the practical tool I use to teach emotion education. The biological and evolutionary purpose of core emotions, like fear, is to help us survive. Fear, in particular, makes us flee from danger.
Anxiety is really a form of internal and emotional inhibition. The amount of inhibition we have, in general, correlates with our early experiences with emotions and how they were responded to by our caregivers. For example, if a baby girl "learns" by experience that her sadness leads her mother to withdraw or get impatient, the baby will learn to suppress her sadness. She will feel anxiety instead. In another example, if a child tells his dad that they are afraid and then gets ridiculed for being weak, fear will be inhibited to make sure dad thinks they are strong, not weak. This child will grow to be an adult who experiences anxiety about being afraid.
Think about core and inhibitory emotions like the gas and breaks of a car.
Here's how fear works in a little more detail: the five senses of seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, and touch, translates information from our immediate environment to our brain and body. For example, when we see a vicious-looking animal running towards us, hear footsteps approaching from behind, smell smoke in our house, or feel unexpectedly touched on the back, the limbic system, simply known as the emotional brain, switches on fear. This happens automatically, without conscious control.
Fear causes many changes in the body. That is because fear's “job” is to get the body ready to flee. Imagine for a minute what happens when we get startled. The mere surprise of a horn, for example, starts our heart racing, and our breathing to get shallower and faster. We might jump or flinch. All the physical changes that fear causes promotes rapid response to danger.
It is worth restating, since many of us blame ourselves for having emotions, that fear and other core emotions are automatic reactions that we cannot prevent from being set-off. Nature designed us this way for a reason. Bypassing conscious control makes for speedier reactions. Without fear, we’d be easier prey.
Fear mobilizes energy for movement and anxiety pushes it back down.
Anxiety is a stop-reaction to the impulses that fear and other emotions create inside our bodies. Why would we learn to push down our fear?
Here are some reasons:
We were told or shown that we were bad or weak for being afraid.
Our fear was unwanted or not permitted by others we needed.
Our fear felt or feels overwhelming and unmanageable.
We could not escape danger at one time.
We have too many emotions at one time to process or understand them.
Our fear conflicts with other emotions, beliefs, values, and what others ask of us.
Fear and Anxiety in the Body
All emotions are physical in nature. As a result, we can sense them in the body. If we slow down and notice what happens below the neck during fear or anxiety, we will eventually notice a variety of physical sensations and changes.
Some physical manifestations of fear:
Shortness of breath
Some physical and psychological manifestations of anxiety also called signs and symptoms of anxiety:
Feeling nervous, restless, or tense
Having a sense of doom
Shortness of breath
Gastrointestinal (GI) distress
Having difficulty controlling worry/ruminating
Having the urge to avoid things that trigger anxiety
You might have noticed that fear and anxiety evoke several similar physical experiences. That's why they are hard to discern.
Working with Anxiety and Fear
Core emotions like fear resolve when they are fully and safely experienced in the body--assuming the threat has already passed. Using deep belly breathing plus a mindful, curious and compassionate stance, we can follow the sensations of fear in the body, like trembling, until they release or dissipate.
Anxiety on the other hand needs to be calmed not only to feel better but to help get us in touch with the core emotions that underlie it.
When working the Change Triangle, we must first find a quiet place to slow down, feel our feet on the ground, and take 6 or so deep belly breaths. Not only does this set the stage for processing emotions, but it immediately begins to calm anxiety. Then we must get very curious about what core emotions we might also be experiencing. I ask myself, “Is anything scary or dangerous happening to me right now?” If I am going too fast in my car or boarding an airplane, I might answer yes. If I cannot pay my rent this month or I don't have enough money for food, that would trigger fear as well. Additionally, if I am under threat from an oppressive and hostile societal system, that would trigger fear as well. It's important to seek safety and support if you are in imminent danger, like living with an abuser.
If we know we are not in danger from external threats, we can assume it's anxiety, which is more of an internal warning system.
When working with anxiety, I advise going deeper to see if you can identify one or more core emotions that are underlying the anxiety. Ask yourself, "Do I feel angry? Do I feel sadness? Do I feel afraid? Do I feel disgusted? Do I feel excited? Do I feel joy? Do I feel sexually excited?
Try never to judge the emotions you discover within. Instead, appreciate them for how they inform us of our humanity and remind us we are alive.
Distinguishing Past from Present
One of the things that make emotions so confusing is that we can experience emotions and anxiety because of something upsetting in the present AND we can experience emotions and anxiety from something that happened in the past that is influencing us now.
For example, Steve gets hit with a jolt of what feels like fear every time his boss assigns a new task. We determined this was anxiety and not fear. How? Because being assigned a task is not a threat to his life. However, as a little boy, when Steve made a mistake he was chastised and humiliated. As an adult, Steve’s mind equates doing tasks with the possibility of making a mistake. The possibility of making a mistake brings up the memory of being shamed when he was little, which triggers anxiety. Anxiety, one might say, is a fear of painful feelings.
Psychotherapy can be helpful in determining what events from the past influence our fear in the present.
The Good News
We have the power to move through anxiety and fear to increase future well-being. We can work the Change Triangle and learn techniques such as fantasy portrayals and staying with physical sensations to help process fear and other core emotions. These techniques can be used alone or with a support person or professional counselor who works with emotions in the body.
Emotional health is as important as physical health. And, in truth, they are inextricably linked. When we feel anxious or scared, it's time to understand what is happening so we can respond to our emotions in a way that nurtures our short and long-term emotional health. You can feel better!
Fosha, D. (2000). The Transforming Power of Affect: A Model for Accelerated Change. New York: Basic Books
Hendel, H.J. (2018). It’s Not Always Depression: Working the Change Triangle to Listen to the Body, Discover Core Emotions, and Connect to Your Authentic Self. New York: Spiegel & Grau
Levine, P. (1997). Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books
Van Der Kolk, B. (2014). The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. New York: Viking