Thursday, January 13, 2011

Anxiety vs Fear

Fear is what kept our primitive ancestors alive in a hostile world. They had no time to wonder or ponder. They had a minute, maybe two, to make the life-or-death choice: 'Should we fight or should we run?' Adrenaline flooded their bloodstreams, adding speed, energy, strength. Their veins and arteries constricted simultaneously to slow the bleeding if they were wounded. Their pulses quickened, their bodily defenses stiffened. This physical response to a clear and present danger was fear -- the same fear we depend on to save our own lives.

Today, most of what we call 'fear' is something else. It is anxiety, a response not to danger itself but to anticipated danger. The cave dweller was rightly concerned about being some creature's breakfast on the spot. What he felt was real fear. When we worry about something that might happen later -- when we say, 'I just know I'm going to fail!' -- that's anxiety. When the brakes in your car stop working on a hill, what you feel is fear. When you worry over what you will say at a meeting next Tuesday, that's anxiety -- and anxiety is a lot more agonizing that fear.

Fear usually ends with the event: The car stops, the fear is over. Anxiety, on the other hand, can be endless.

Why do I emphasise this distinction?

I do because your body often does not.

Have you ever noticed how your body reacts when you're anxious? Quickened pulse. Sweaty palms. Dry throat, just as if you were face-to-face with a creature who wanted to gobble you up for breakfast! Anxiety is so frustrating: All that energy, and nothing to do with it. You can't run or fight, because there's nothing to run from, nothing to fight. You sit with a knot in your stomach, anticipating danger.

What I did not understand when I was younger is that worry, whether prompted by fear or anxiety, is an expression of nervous energy, and, as such, is potentially helpful, healthy, and good. The greatest heroes, the most successful and triumphant people, worry. The difference is that they do something about it: They worry well.

--Walter Anderson, The Confidence Course


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