Monday, January 12, 2009

Something Bad Might Happen: Anxiety vs Fear

What's the difference between fear and anxiety?  Why should you care?

I think most of us in the 21st century are getting confused between the two.  With so much information available to us - in fact, thrust upon us - our brains can overload trying to protect us.

Having a paranoid brain was likely a good survival trait when we were living on the savannah with lots of meat-loving predators about, and a host of attractive red berries that could give you more than just a tummy-ache if you ate them.  In a modern city, in the midst of a global cyber-village, the same paranoia can seriously diminish your joy in life.

I read a number of different definitions in articles online. They seemed too limited in defnition or too technical (trying to define different brain chemicals!) to me. So I offer this handy differential guide, with the caveat that I'm not a trained psychologist, just an opinionated childless woman, who might have a weenie bit of an issue with anxiety at times.

Fear is specific, it has an object, a limited duration, it's motivating and it can be satisfied.
  • Fear is specific:  you know what - exactly - you are afraid of, whether it is the spider on your dashboard, or failing your next test.
  • Fear has an object:  there is a basis, a reason for your fear - you fear this spider because it is about to jump on you and it has a red stripe on its back, or because you have a spider phobia. You fear failing your next test because you know you haven't studied all the relevant material.
  • Fear has a limited duration:  you are afraid while the thing you fear is around or in potential.  Even arachnaphobics don't spend all their time thinking about spiders. (Quite the reverse, I suspect.)  If you fear failing this test, taking the test will resolve the fear one way or another. You won't continue to be afraid of failing after the test results are posted.
  • Fear is motivating:  it gets us moving and doing.  Fight or flight.  We run away from spiders, or hit them with the broom from 5ft away.  We do extra study for the test, or become busy cleaning our desk/office/house as an avoidance strategy.
  • Fear can be satisfied: the fear goes away - either because we found a way to make ourselves less afraid, or because the moment is passed and the fear goes with it.  So you ran away from the spider and your fear ebbed.  Or you studied for the test and your fear ebbed.  You don't continue to be afraid after the source of your fears is removed.
Anxiety is pervasive, it is generalised, it is enduring, it is never satisfied, and it is dis-motivating.
  • Anxiety is pervasive: we don't need a reason to be anxious.  Or we can find every reason to be anxious.
  • Anxiety is generalised: we're anxious about "failing", not merely this test.  Or of "being unloveable" rather than that this person no longer loves us.
  • Anxiety is enduring: we can temporarily ease this particular anxiety, but another one will pop right up to take its place.  Or we'll just continue to be anxious about this particular thing long after its use-by date.
  • Anxiety is never satisfied:  we can study as hard and as long as we like.  We can ace as many tests as we like, and anxiety will still whisper that we're going to fail.
  • Anxiety is dis-motivating:  anxiety encourages us to stay stuck.  It tells us to NOT do things. It says "something bad might happen". With its endless litany of what could go wrong, it suggests that sitting here frozen is the best option available.
Fear deserves our respect.  We can and should do a 'risk assessment' and then we can either run away or feel the fear and do it anyway.

Anxiety doesn't deserve much respect*. It has a limited usefulness, in small doses it can get our strategic thinking going.  Anxiety always sees the negative.  Sometimes it does show us something we're not afraid of, but maybe we should be!

When you hear the voice in your head that says, "This might not be a good idea...", ask it for specifics, "Oh yeah? Why not?"  

If the answer is, "Something... something baaaad might happen..." you're probably dealing with anxiety.  

If the answer is, "If your hand shakes at all while throwing that dart, you'll impale the lady in blue who is standing too close to the dartboard," then you might want to listen.

*I'm not talking about anxiety disorders here.  Those deserve respect, as do the people suffering through them.  I'm just talking about garden-variety 21st century anxiety.

No comments: