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Understanding Anxiety vs. Fear

Women Understanding Emotions

Many individuals casually throw around the word "anxiety" to describe feelings of fear or worry toward something. So, how do you know when what you are experiencing is actually anxiety? Or when it’s unhealthy? Although fear and anxiety exist in the same slice of the feelings wheel, there are some key differences.

To help simplify the differences, clinicians tend to label fear as a response to a "certain threat" and anxiety as a response to an "uncertain threat," (Hur et al., 2020). Fear, and even anxiety, are helpful emotions and ultimately serve a protective role, alerting you to danger and preparing your body to react. However, the need for hyper-awareness often passes long before we can convince our bodies of that fact, and the survival mechanisms that kick in can wear on our bodies and minds long-term.

Let's use the 2020 COVID-19 Pandemic as a way for us to discuss fear and anxiety!

Understanding & Validating Fear

I think we can all agree that the COVID-19 Pandemic provoked some fear... ok, a lot of fear! The U.S. has not seen a severe pandemic since the 1918 influenza, and they did not have as much of a social infrastructure to uphold at that time. For most of us, the pandemic ushered in a new category of fear you didn't even know existed.

Even those of us who are normally fully functioning adults with a career, a relationship, a mortgage, or kids at home felt the pandemic panic rising up. In the initial days of the quarantines, the challenge we faced was that the lines were severely blurred between fear and anxiety, certain and uncertain threats. What began as specific incidences where we needed to make adjustments to our everyday lives turned into launching points for our anxiety spirals. Each of those worries was rooted in some truth.

As you read the statements below, you can almost imagine the sparks of anxiety that leap off at every turn:

  • There was a harmful virus spreading quickly that was proven to be fatal to many specific age groups and populations, and we still have an incomplete understanding of how it will affect those who had it and recovered.

  • You were asked to operate with limited access to your normal activities as businesses and workplaces closed down.

  • There was widespread concern about how the pandemic was being handled on a national, state, and local level.

  • As news outlets captured more viewers, the fear that false information will spread to mass amounts of people began to settle in.

  • Many people lost their jobs and job security was not as stable as before.

  • As deadlines for shutdowns and mask mandates extended, worries surfaced that things will never be "normal" again.

When Fear Goes Too Far

Although the above discusses genuine fears, for many, these fears turn into more harmful anxieties as we continue to devote energy towards them. When you begin to experience an increased heart rate, excess sweating, trouble sleeping, and constant worry, these physical reactions cause the brain and body to register the source of your anxiety as legitimate fear.

Anxiety is no longer helpful when:

  • It does not lead you to take action, which is what productive anxiety will do. For example, watching the news about COVID-19 caused concern about getting it; this was productive because it caused people to buy masks and follow recommended protocols.

  • It becomes a pattern in our lives, as in, "I have anxiety about [this recurring event which happens every week]."

  • It stops you from trying new things, such as therapy with a new provider or necessary things, such as grocery shopping for the family.

  • We cope with it by numbing or distracting ourselves or funneling it into anger without ever returning to deal with it.

It’s helpful to learn how to be aware of when your survival instincts are right on track or when you may need to monitor your responses to situations and employ some techniques to feel a greater sense of calm.

Coping with Unwarranted Anxiety

There are many methods of treating anxiety. A combination of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and medication are the most widely researched and well-regarded treatment intervention. While there are many medications that are effective against anxiety, this is a conversation that you’ll want to bring to your medical treatment provider. A CBT therapist can help you track the effects of the medication, and build upon the inherent sense of calm that the medication offers.

In addition to taking medications or working with a clinician to assess and correct unhelpful thinking patterns and establish new ones, there are ways you can stay grounded despite your anxiety. Some helpful at-home exercises that can be done to help the brain respond in a healthier way to unwarranted anxiety:

  1. Take deep breaths to relieve upper body tension, improve blood flow, and maintain your center of calm.

  2. Use mindfulness meditation to stay focused on the present. Notice what you're feeling in your body, the thoughts that got you into this pattern, and your connection to the earth below.

  3. Change your thinking and shift how you base your "grade" to your own personal rating of yourself, not what someone else thinks of you. This changes your locus of control and will encourage you to take action.

  4. Take a page from sports- keep thinking about your game plan. The emphasis here is on thinking about your game plan as opposed to worrying about what might go wrong or trying to control someone or something else.

  5. Go out of your way to have a conversation with someone about anything unrelated to your anxieties. You may find that you are really glad to have conversed with someone and grateful for the distraction.

  6. Get vulnerable and share what you’re going through with a partner, a friend, or a supportive therapist.

Your anxieties do not have to be COVID-related or on the list above to be worthy of talking about in session. Know that just because you have anxiety, it doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with you. The anxieties you feel are based on an instinct to survive! You can untangle what’s “certain” from what’s not, though, in order to help you find a more balanced and calm center. Try some of the above suggestions to see how well it makes a difference in your daily anxiety, and consider finding a therapist who will be a good fit for your needs!

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Hur, J., Smith, J. F., DeYoung, K. A., Anderson, A. S., Kuang, J., Cho Kim, H., Tillman, R. M., Kuhn, M., Fox, A. S., & Shackman, A. J. (7 October, 2020). Anxiety and the neurobiology of temporally uncertain threat anticipation. The Journal of Neuroscience, 40(41).


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