Fear and Anxiety Are Not The Same: The Difference Can Set You Free

 Fear and Anxiety are actually very different.  Even though they may feel the same, they are different in four ways.

  1. their origins are different,
  2. they take place at different times in the thinking sequence,
  3. they are processed by different parts of the brain.
  4. One is completely automatic and the other is consciously created.

Fear developed to alert us to possible danger. When there is danger the Fight or flight reaction is triggered. The fear alert is one of the most ancient brain systems and it is completely automatic.

If someone comes up behind you and startles you so badly you spill your drink or do something you haven’t done since you were a toddler, it’s really not your fault. It actually “scared” you. Your old brain thought there was danger and your fight-or-flight system was responsible for your reaction. Conscious involvement was not part of the process.

We do not want to eliminate the danger alert system because it has allowed us to evolve to this point, and still helps us avoid most situations that are actually dangerous.  Fear is what saved your life when you weren’t watching and stepped out in front of a car. Your ancient brain saw danger, took control of your brain, and got you safely back on the curb.

Anxiety, on the other hand, is not automatic. It is a conscious process. 

A study by Stephane Ciocchi and Thomas Klausberger, shows anxiety is coded by the neurons of the hippocampus and then this information is not then sent directly to the old brain’s fear center but rather to the prefrontal cortex, our modern brain’s control center, for further processing and for decision-making.

Anxiety is the feeling we get when we imagine or predict, an unwanted negative outcome in a future event. Conscious involvement is required for both creation and maintenance.

Not too long ago, I had a nine-year-old patient who was too anxious to let the nurse start an IV before his operation. I explained I would use a mask to put him to sleep, but he had to breathe the anesthetic and not fight it, or us.

A little way into the process of going to sleep, he started fidgeting, so I asked him what was wrong. He said, “I’m scared” and fidgets more. I asked “What are you scared of?” He didn’t answer. He just kept wiggling. So, I said, “Tell me what you’re scared of.”

He stops wiggling, looks up at me, and says, “I’m scared of feeling scared.”

I was stunned, absolutely amazed. This nine-year-old had just summed up everything about the fundamental nature of anxiety and negative emotions in five words.

Of course, we now know he wasn’t really “scared,” he was extremely anxious. He was anxious about feeling anxious.

Anxiety is a story about a negative future that we do not want. This is the actual basis for all negative emotions.

Anxiety is the first and primary negative emotion. Every other negative emotion is anxiety, it is just about different kind of negative future. Angry, sad, failure, shame, guilt, uncertainty, hopeless, and helpless are all different kinds of futures we can predict. , or

In another lesson. I asked the question, what goes on in our brains when we think our future might not turn out the way we want it to? 

Anxiety is what happens. There are three general outcomes that our anxious stories predict will happen.

You will not get what you want 

You will get something you do not want 

You will lose something you have. 

Anxiety, as you can now see, is the opposite of our current misguided concept of success. Anxiety means potential, or probable, failure.

You can imagine how stories about any one of those can easily produce the other negative emotions such as anger, sadness, depression, shame, guilt — or even more anxiety.

If you suffer from anxiety or any other negative emotion, you have what the nine-year-old had. You are scared of being scared. But, by now, you understand that “scared” is not the word that correctly describes what was bothering the nine-year-old.

What he was feeling was not related to danger, was it? It was the feeling being produced by his extreme anxiety. It’s a horrible feeling, and none of us want to feel that way.

Panic attacks are the same. People who have panic attacks are most anxious about having another panic attack. They feel like they are going to die.

But they aren’t, are they? It is the feeling of extreme anxiety.

Once again, what is anxiety? It’s a story you’re telling yourself that predicts a future you don’t want. Anxiety frequently is about a specific event but can become a general expectation.

At that point anxiety is just about an unwanted future.

A lot of anxiety is believing we won’t know what to do next. Almost all the time we know exactly what we should do, but we often build a big story around the decision and suffer because of the drama. The drama can become so severe that physical symptoms arise and force us to change our lives, often not for the better.

The emotions we want to control, the emotions we need to control, and the emotions we can control, are the negative emotions we consciously create.

Allowing negative emotions to control our thinking is the root cause of the nearly all of our problems. 

Most of your negative emotions will vanish when you quit telling yourself negative stories.

To help you get control of your negative emotions quickly, the next blog will teach about the difference between Stress and Anxiety which will explain why the same skill can be used to prevent or stop either Anxiety or Stress.


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