Posted by: Dr. Jennifer Fee | October 7, 2010

Close Cousins: Anxiety, Worry, & Fear

When you are overwhelmed by anxiety, worry and fear you might not care about the subtle differences that distinguish them. However, part of being able to take control of these issues in your life is to first gain a good understanding of how each of these can operate, both in their similarities and differences.

Anxiety:  Anxiety is the anticipation of danger that might happen in the future.  By the way, that future may be 5 seconds from now or 50 years from now!  The important part is that the danger has not happened just yet.  The danger may be real, like someone is tailgating you, or it may be imagined, like you believe someone is going to criticize you as you stand up and give a short speech.

Anxiety has a very strong physical component–you feel it in your body!  This might occur in your stomach, your heart, you might sweat, feel dizzy, your muscles might be tense..etc, etc.   The more intense the anxiety, the more intense the physical sensations. 

Anxiety has a thinking component (here’s where worry comes in) in that what you think either fuels the anxiety or calms it down.  And, it has a behavioral component–when we’re anxious we often take action, to either deal with the situation, leave the situation, or just freeze in the moment of it.

Finally, anxiety is an emotion that leads to lots of other emotions, such as feeling overwhelmed,  exhausted, and afraid (here’s where fear kicks in). 

Worry:   While anxiety is strongly experienced in our bodies, worry is fueled by our thoughts.  Sometimes, though, we can be so overwhelmed by what’s going on in our bodies that it’s hard to identify our thoughts and worries.  The thoughts and worries can move through our mind at lightening speed! 

Here’s one simple way to start to identify your worrisome thoughts:  just pay attention to your thoughts that start with the phrase:  “What if………………………..?”  Almost all “what if” thoughts are worries.

Fear:  Fear is an emotion that results from anxiety. We are threatened by something and one reaction is fear.  Once I heard someone distinguish between fear and anxiety this way:  “Anxiety occurs when you are in a room and you know there’s a tiger on the other side of the door.  Fear occurs when the tiger comes into the room with you.”  (unfortunately, I heard this at a conference somewhere many years ago and I can’t remember who said it, so I can’t give the author proper credit).

In other words, according to that description, fear occurs while we are actually dealing with a threat, or are in the imminent threat of danger.  Fear would occur while we actually are face to face with a vicious dog, or our car really did break down on the side of the freeway. 

As you can see, anxiety, worry, and fear do overlap quite a bit.  Thinking about the differences, however, might help you to figure out where you are suffering the most.  Is the experiences in your body that scare you?  Is the endless litany of thoughts when you go to bed that keep you awake for hours? Or, are you in a life situation that is marked by fear of real danger, such as an abusive relationship?

Then answer to these questions might show you where you need to focus on addressing the current difficulty in your life.

Thanks for reading!  –Dr. Jennifer Fee

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