Fear Versus Anxiety
Do you know the difference between fear and anxiety?
If you look in the dictionary or ask most people, these words are often used interchangeably. However, there is an important distinction between them. To understand, let’s consider Janet and Marc.
The sun was just beginning to peek through the blinds as Janet opened her eyes to a new day. There was so much to do before her big meeting in the early afternoon. After several years of working late into the evening every day and missing out on vacations and times with friends, she was finally given the opportunity to present her ideas and move ahead in the company. She had been so certain her superiors would love her work. However, as she drove to work on that all-important day, an intense feeling overtook her. Her stomach clenched, her heart and thoughts began to race, and as she saw her reflection in the rear-view mirror, she noticed huge beads of sweat forming on her brow. By the time she arrived to work, she was nauseated. Rather than prepare for the meeting, she spent almost an hour in the bathroom.
Oh no! I have to get out of this! I’ll never make it!
Marc had been up since dawn. He loved this time in the morning. Watching the sunrise while listening to music and working out on his elliptical trainer was an elixir for his soul. He was ready for his day. He felt strong. After a hearty breakfast, he hugged his children and kissed his wife goodbye as he made his way to his car. Marc enjoyed his ride to work by listening to the latest audio book. His house was high on top of a hill overlooking the city. The ride down was curvy, but he did not mind. Unbeknownst to Marc, though, today was different. Halfway down the hill, the brakes began to slip. Instantly, his stomach clenched, his heart and thoughts began to race, and as he caught his reflection in the rear-view mirror, he noticed huge beads of sweat forming on his brow. Oh no! I have to get out of this! I’ll never make it!
On the surface, these two stories are rather different from each other. Nevertheless, both people experience identical physical feelings and even the same thoughts. What happening here?
The human brain is wired to be on the lookout for threat. To understand the disparate stories of Janet and Marc, it can be helpful to divide the threats into two major types: Life and Limb versus Social and Practical.
Life and Limb Threats
Deep in the recesses of our brains lie the amygdala and limbic system. Dr. Daniel Siegel, prolific author and psychiatrist, as well as father of the relatively new field of Interpersonal Neurobiology, refers to this area as, “SAM” – Search, Alert, and Mobilize. SAM searches by working with the brain’s “Grand Central Station,” otherwise known as the thalamus. Incoming stimuli is analyzed and if it is labeled as a “known threat” to physical well-being, an alert is sent to the amygdala and stress-related hormones and neurotransmitters are released to prepare the body to move (mobilize).
With respect to these types of threats, SAM’s response time is extremely rapid – nano- or millisecond processing times are common so as to move the body out of the way in time. This, we will refer to as the fear response.
Social and Practical Threats
Unlike SAM’s astronomically fast processing, the front part of the brain, the frontal lobe in particular, is much slower. To simplify, we will refer to this pondering portion of the brain as the “Executive Assistant”, or “EA”. The EA’s response time is on the order of the first IBM computer versus the Cray Super Computer (SAM). This is the case because incoming information foreign to the leaders at Grand Central (the thalamus), and therefore not a known threat to physical safety, are shot over to the EA for analysis. This naturally takes longer. Suppose your boss reprimands you for the first time, an important project isn’t finished the way it was meant to be, or self-doubt (such as with Janet) creeps in – all of these can signal the frontal lobe to panic and shoot off a stress-response request to SAM. Without mindfulness, the EA generally interprets this as a reason for fight or flight, just as if SAM was acting alone. When the EA is called on to label and respond to a threat, that is the anxiety response.
Besides the separate mechanisms and purposes that fear and anxiety have in the brain, these two responses also require different solutions. Life and limb threats require fight or flight (get help or get out).
On the other hand, social and practical threats generally require problem solving, people skills, or distress tolerance. The difficulty in distinguishing between them lies with the fact that the body typically registers the same physical response in both. Therefore, in either case, the non-mindful human is left in a state of wanting to ditch the situation. In Marc’s case, preparation to escape the situation of a car that cannot stop as it speeds down a windy hill would be a good idea (if he can do it safely). Janet, however, has likely done herself more harm than good by fleeing her “threat” and hiding out in the bathroom
Written by book author, blogger, & educational/motivational speaker, Hannah Smith, MA LMHC CGP. Founder and owner of Potential Finders Network, Hannah provides consultation, training, and personal development services. Hannah’s passion is to see people reach their potential and find lasting, positive change. If you have topics you want to suggest, please don’t hesitate to contact her at Hannah@PotentialFinders.com and check out PotentialFinders.com or Facebook to learn more.