Fear vs. Anxiety

(Bill Hatfield, Stir the Embers co-founder and facilitator)

Is there a difference between fear and anxiety? Fear can be defined as a distressing emotion aroused by impending danger (evil, pain, etc.), whether the threat is real or imagined. It is a normal, natural response to some specific, outside stimulus that we think is going to cause us harm (a loud noise, a spider, a bad guy jumping out of the bushes). Anxiety, on the other hand, can be defined as distress or uneasiness of mind caused by fear of danger or misfortune. We often experience anxiety as a constant low-grade feeling that something is not right. The specific cause is often harder to pinpoint, yet we still feel its effects.

Our bodies respond to fear by dumping a mix of hormones and chemicals (primarily adrenalin), into our system that will increase our ability to survive a “fight or flight” scenario. This amazing biological cocktail speeds up our reactions, makes us stronger, increases our ability to focus, and causes us to be less susceptible to pain. Unfortunately, these benefits come with some liabilities, such as loss of fine motor control and tunnel vision. In a case where that jolt of chemicals allows us to save ourselves, the negative effects are mitigated by the activity of fighting or running. The stress to the heart and brain are necessary for survival, and ideally, only happens when the need is critical.

Our bodies respond to anxiety with the same mix of hormones and chemicals, but rather than dumping them all at once into the bloodstream as it does in response to fear, it trickles them into our bodies like a leaky valve. In a sense, our body is “priming the pump” for a fight or flight reaction by constantly dripping small amounts into our system, but it is ready to dump more chemicals if needed. Unfortunately, this means we get all of the physical drawbacks mentioned above without the benefit of a fight or flight situation where the positive effects of the chemical cocktail would be useful. We lose fine motor control and our movements become jerky. We get tunnel vision and lose cognitive ability as the body steals oxygen from those parts of the brain to make it available to muscles that, not needing it, tend to feel shaky. Our blood pressure spikes, and since that extra capacity isn’t needed, our circulatory system is stressed and we develop a headache or, over time, hypertension. Then, to make matters worse, our body’s reaction to any minor startle event is to dump more of these chemicals in our system.

At Stir the Embers, we believe that an integral part of being a warrior is listening to our bodies and becoming aware of our physiological response to fear. Once we understand how to use the extra boost that fear gives us, rather than being paralyzed by it, we can make use of it to react and survive. The other side of that coin is recognizing anxiety for what it is and managing it accordingly. Here are three simple steps you can take to counteract the negative effects of anxiety:

  • Regular exercise – Our most useful tool in neutralizing anxiety. Being physically active allows us to burn off those chemicals leaking into our system in a positive way.
  • Daily meditation or prayer – This has been proven to help the mind better control anxiety. Developing a regular habit of reflection and introspection allows us to not only deal with the effects of anxiety, but to better manage situations that would normally cause anxiety.
  • Controlled breathing – This gives our body more oxygen that our brain can use to better manage the effects of the chemicals our body is releasing. A simple way to accomplish this is to breathe in through your nose for count of four, hold for a count of four, then exhale through your mouth for a count of four. Repeat this cycle three times, slowing the four-count down a bit each time.

The main difference between fear and anxiety is that fear is life-saving. It is our body’s emergency reserve. Anxiety, on the other hand, is a killer.

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