My journey to connect with purpose and passion.

Fear and Anxiety

We all deal with fear and anxiety. They are natural emotions and one could argue that they help us make sense of the world. They even modify our behaviour to improve our chances for survival.

The problem arises when we think of these two terms (fear and anxiety) as the same thing. They are anything but the same.

Fear is an emotional response to a known or defined (real) threat.

Anxiety is an emotional response to a vague or non-existent (imagined) threat.

If a giant 3 foot spider were to suddenly drop down from the ceiling beside me, I would scream and jump back from my keyboard. I might even do my patented spider dance. This is a natural fear-based response. The spider is an unexpected but real threat. After a few moments, my pre-frontal cortex will start working again (assuming the giant spider doesn’t decide to scramble towards me) and I can then determine how best to deal with this situation.

But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that a giant spider has never dropped down from the ceiling in my studio. For some unknown reason, I find myself imagining a large spider on the ceiling and within milliseconds my hands start to get clammy. I tell myself there is nothing to worry about even as I feel my mouth going dry. I begin glancing furtively at the ceiling to check for giant, south-american man-eating spider nests. Within a few short minutes, I am short of breath and no longer sitting in my chair. Hell, I’m no longer in the room. I am standing in the hall, afraid to move because the lights are off downstairs and I could swear I saw something move along the ceiling. 

I am now in a full-blown anxiety induced panic attack and this was brought about by an entirely non-existent and imagined threat. But if my partner were suddenly to walk up behind me and say something, I would likely scream and kick him in the face out of a full-fledged fight or flight response. I am just trying to stay alive. 

Fear is easy to bounce back from. We can see that it was actually a rubber toy our partner thought would make for an awesome practical joke. Aside from making him sleep on the sofa for a week, there is no real fallout from the event. I can see that it was not actually a giant, man-eating spider and move on.

Anxiety is not so easy to shake off. The biggest reason for this is that anxiety is self-reinforcing. There was never a giant spider or anything remotely like one, but I still found myself in a full-fledged panic attack. So the anxiety is real. The end result was the same as there being a horde of the things crawling across my ceiling.

There is nothing wrong with being afraid of change. Change is a disruptive force. It can also be an amazing force in our lives. But if you find yourself becoming anxious when nothing has changed or disrupted, then you are likely dealing with anxiety.

You can't "power your way" through anxiety. Forcing yourself to panic is not going to help make the changes you need or even want. It risks making the anxiety more of a problem in the future. Anxiety is a sign that we need help and the best thing to do is to reach out and get that help. It could be a coach, a dear friend, a therapist or a mastermind group of likeminded people. 

Many say to follow your fear. This is silly. Anxiety and fear do not make a good compass as they do not point us in any one direction. They are simply indicators that work needs to be done - that we are soulfully unfulfilled or lost. And that we are standing in fertile soil where attention and work is needed.

Sean HowardComment