Have you noticed most people use the words anxiety and fear to mean the same thing? This is because there are overlaps in the physical sensations that people experience with fear and anxiety — but does that mean they are the same?
Mainstream medicine, psychiatry and psychology often acknowledge a minor difference. They suggest that anxiety is a set of responses to an unknown or ill-defined threat, whereas fear is a set of responses to a precise, well-defined treat. In terms of brain activity, anxiety and fear are reported to be in different parts of the brain but largely end up in the same place. Both involve the amygdala, the hypothalamus and the brain stem.
However, I believe there is more to it than that. I think there are differences in WHY anxiety and fear present themselves. This is especially important when looking at what to do about them, what they mean and how to overcome them.
So what is the difference?
Fear in very simple terms relates to the future and to missing information. Fear is an umbrella term for a family of emotions that includes worry, dread, concern, apprehension and nervousness, among other things. Broadly speaking they all relate to the same thing: lack of information about the future.
If you stop for a moment and think about the last time you experienced one or more of the fear emotions, as you review the situation in your mind you will find that the fear related to missing information, something you didn’t know, or didn’t want to happen. When the information is received the fear moves away and is replaced by other emotions, depending on what is going on. You never experience fear about the past. You can experience hurt an anger about the past, but never fear.
To give a straightforward example, imagine you were about to take your driving test. There is a very good chance you’ll experience some nervousness or apprehension, which is a perfectly normal and natural response. This emotion primarily relates to the information that is missing — what will your examiner be like, what route will you take, will you remember how to drive, what questions will you be asked and will you pass or fail. When you get in the car and start driving, the information is no longer missing so your emotional self replaces the fear with some other emotions. If you are doing well your confidence will increase and you might even feel happy.
If your experience prior to the test was full blown anxiety and panic, this is not fear. The cause of the anxiety and panic symptoms is NOT missing information. This is crucially why fear and anxiety are different, the underlying triggers that cause fear and anxiety are different. Fear is an emotion whereas anxiety is a set of symptoms.
With this in mind we need to turn our attention to what the causes of anxiety and panic are and how to address them. There are 4 core elements that we need to consider that all relate to the flow of energy and emotion through the body. If we continue with our driving test example, theses are:
- How important is the test, what does passing or failing mean, what does it mean about me? This element is all about expectations, standards and unconscious beliefs about myself. The more I attach my sense of identity with external events the more I block the flow of my energy and the more disconnected from my core-essence I become.
- Emotional Blockage or Imbalance. If you are familiar with my work, you know that I do not view emotion as simply the end result of thinking, rather I see it as a complex physiological process affecting body and brain often occurring outside of our conscious awareness and prior to any conscious thought. Emotion is feedback ‘sent’ in relation to our interaction with our environment and our unconscious appraisals of the environment. Our emotion either flows through us or becomes imbalanced and blocked in the body. When it becomes blocked or out of balance anxiety symptoms can ensue.
- Control and freedom: feeling trapped or out of control either consciously or unconsciously blocks the flow of my energy. This often happens when I unconsciously believe that I need to control external events in order to manage my emotional experience. This is connected to the misguided unconscious belief that all our emotion is directly caused by external events, thus the need to control events to control our emotional experience. However, external events do not cause our emotion. On top of that, we cannot control external events so holding this belief often results in a blockage of energy and disconnection from core.
- Wearing a mask: needing to convey a persona or manipulate other peoples perceptions of me. This leads to being inauthentic and results in a block in the flow of my energy.
These causes lead to imbalances and blockages in emotional and ‘life force’ energy, which in turn manifest as symptoms of anxiety and panic. If I were experiencing anxiety and panic prior to my test there may be some nervousness as well, however, the key in overcoming the anxiety is by addressing and resolving our 4 core elements.
Let’s look at a couple of other examples to show that anxiety and panic are not just fear:
A few months ago I received a phone call from a lady requesting assistance with anxiety and panic symptoms. Her symptoms had been gradually increasing and affecting her day-to-day life. She described a recent example where she had experienced a significant anxiety attack when taking her children to school. This is how she described the experience:
“We were late leaving the house, the kids were arguing, the weather was bad and the traffic was heavy. A few minutes into the journey my son told me he’d forgotten his soccer kit despite my reminding him several times, so we had to turn around and head back home. By the time we got to school parking was difficult. I had to pull up on the side of the road and other cars started to beep and honk their horns. I got soaked with the heavy rain as I took the kids into school, the pair of them still bickering until we were inside. When I got back to my car I had a huge anxiety attack and tried to figure out what I was so frightened of.”
My first words were, “You weren’t frightened. Anxiety and fear in many instances are completely different things.” As she described the events that morning there was a clear build up of frustration and anger within her, and she had tried to bury those emotions inside. The build up resulted in symptoms of anxiety and panic.
My second example comes from the TV show The Soprano’s. In the show, lead character Tony Soprano is a mob boss who sufferers from panic attacks. His attacks are so serious that he passes out. The show depicts his life as a family man, a mob boss and a patient in therapy. Each time he has a panic attack there is a build up of emotion leading up to it, a noticeable increase in his experience of frustration, anger and agitation. However, in order to get through his day he puts a lid on these emotions and attempts to bury them. The result is a panic attack. His therapist fails to make the connection between current emotional imbalance and blockage right in the moment. Instead she focuses on his childhood and relationship with his mother – a common mistake
There are a couple of valuable lessons we can learn from this. First, fear emotions are different from anxiety symptoms. Anxiety is far more complex and has a number of causes – the 4 core elements. Complete recovery from anxiety is possible and is inevitable when the true underlying causes are effectively addressed.
Second, if you are unsure whether you are experiencing fear or anxiety, check whether there is any missing information. If there is, are you able to acquire that information? If not, there is a good chance you are suffering from anxiety or panic symptoms. If you look back at the 4 core elements you may begin to see which needs to be addressed in order to facilitate your recovery.
If you suffer from anxiety of any kind, be that performance anxiety, social anxiety, generalised anxiety disorder, derealisation, depersonalisation, OCD or panic attacks, or if you just want to find out more about the 4 Core Element model and how this new approach is different from cognitive based and other anxiety recovery programs available, you can attend my FREE New Paradigm Anxiety Elimination webinar and get loads of useful insights into how you can recover completely from any anxiety condition, just click here.
*photo courtesy of Leslee Jo Photography