Fear and anxiety not the same thing.

By David Joel Miller.

Confusing fear and anxiety cause you emotional pain.

When is fear real?

Fear, Anxiety, and Worry.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.com

Many people are high in anxiety. They report that they are afraid of a great many things. To conquer anxiety, you need to learn the difference between the things you are afraid of, the ones you really should be afraid of, and the things that make you anxious for very personal reasons.

Recent research suggests that we may have been getting two different things confused.  While fear and anxiety may look a lot alike, the kind of behavior we do to defend ourselves, the circuits in the brain for these two things are quite different.

Fear is about an immediate danger.

Defensive behaviors are controlled in the human brain stem. The brainstem controls automatic reactions to things. It’s the part of the brain that keeps your heart beating when you fall asleep. Many fears are hardwired into the brainstem and function to protect humans from harm.

If you are too close to the edge of a cliff, and about to fall off, fear kicks in and tells you to step back. For most people avoiding falling off a cliff or from another high place keeps them from getting injured or even killed.

If you’re out in the wilderness, it is a good thing to be afraid of bears and lions, tigers and other wild animals. Most primates are instinctively afraid of snakes. Some steaks are poisonous and can kill you. Having an automatic fear eliminates the need to study the snake in front of you to determine if it’s poisonous. Experts, those who work with snakes on a regular basis, learn the difference between poisonous and non-poisonous snakes. Avoiding snakes, especially the poisonous ones, can save your life.

Anxiety is about distant possible dangers.

While fear is about a current immediate danger, anxiety is about future. The majority of things that anxious people worry about are things that are unlikely to happen. Often anxiety is related to rumination.

The part of the brain that appears to be involved in anxiety are the structures that should be used for thinking and planning as well as memory. People who are high in anxiety will attempt to improve results and keep themselves safe by trying to imagine all the things that could possibly go wrong.

The more you sit and try to think of things that might go wrong in the future, the more things you’ll find to be anxious about. It turns out that most of the things that we worry about will never happen. Anxiety is about trying to predict low probability events.

Planning for the future and for contingencies is a good thing. But if you find that you are spending a large amount of time trying to foresee everything that could possibly go wrong, you have moved from planning to trying to be a fortune teller.

The more you try to be perfect and never make a mistake, to create a life in which nothing can ever possibly go wrong, the more you will worry. Unfortunately, the belief that you can somehow protect yourself from every possible catastrophe turns out not to be true.

Whenever you find that you’re worrying about something and it’s making you anxious, the first question to ask yourself is how close am I to this potential danger? Is this something that could happen in the next minute? The second question you should be asking yourself is how likely is this bad outcome to be.

Ask yourself do you want to give up 99% of your life to avoid the things that have a 1% chance of happening. Living, and having good things happen in your life, requires doing lots of things. Unless you really love your anxiety, consider adding more spontaneous, exciting things to your life. Try more things and pay special attention to the things that go well not the few things that don’t turn out the way you want them to occur.

Learning the difference between realistic fears and the high anxiety that worrying brings can result in a much happier life.

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For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse, and Co-occurring disorders see the about the author page. For information about my other writing work beyond this blog check out my Google+ page or the Facebook author’s page, up under David Joel Miller. Posts to the “books, trainings, and classes” category will tell you about those activities. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at counselorfresno.com. A list of books I have read and can recommend is over at Recommended Books