In everyday language, we often use the words “fear” and “anxiety” synonymously, along with “worry,” “nervous,” “stress,” and even “panic.” We could say something like, “I’m anxious about this test” or “I’m stressed about this test” or even “I’m panicking about this test” and yet still practically mean the same thing.
Clinically speaking however, these words all mean different things. It’s important to know how each one is distinct and the unique way that our bodies may experience them.
Let’s start with stress. Stress is your body’s natural reaction to a challenge or a demand, and it can be both positive and negative. In positive stress, the brain becomes focused and alert, we can feel excited and energized, and we can act quickly and confidently. We typically do better work when we experience a manageable degree of short-term stress.
Negative stress happens when the stressful event becomes overwhelming, lasts for a long period of time, or overlaps with other stressful events. Your body remains alert indefinitely, which has a number of negative effects such as forgetfulness, muscle pain and tension, headaches, fatigue, difficulty sleeping, stomach issues, sexual problems, weight change, and more.
Fear and Anxiety
Fear is a natural and powerful response in which your brain and body react to the presence of danger. Your brain alerts your limbic system, which accelerates your breathing, heart rate, blood sugar, and perspiration. The rational part of your brain is muted and many of your internal resources are routed to your muscles and organs needed to protect yourself.
In short, your brain is activating the fight or flight response to try to save you.
For your body, fear and anxiety are strongly interrelated. The primary difference between the two is the context you are experiencing. Fear relates to a known or understood threat, whereas anxiety follows from an unknown or perceived threat.
Anxiety causes many of the same physiological responses as fear but without the immediate and identifiable threat for you to respond to. In other words, it is your body’s apprehension about what might be happening now or at some point in the future.
Symptoms of anxiety can occur in a variety of situations, and can include:
- Feeling overwhelmed or out of control
- Panic attacks
- Social disconnect
- Increased heart rate
- Rapid breathing
- Trouble concentrating
- Difficulty falling asleep
The bad news is that anxiety is the most common mental health disorder in the US. Nearly 1 out of 3 people in the US meet the conditions for a diagnosable anxiety disorder at some point in their lifetime and almost 1 out of 5 have met those conditions within the past year alone. Some common types of anxiety disorders include generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), panic disorder, agoraphobia, and social anxiety disorder, as well as forms of anxiety that do not rise to the level of a clinical disorder but still significantly interfere with daily life and happy living.
The good news is that anxiety is treatable. Multiple studies and decades of research have shown that counseling is a highly effective and long-lasting treatment for anxiety, including treatments like CBT, Mindfulness, and EMDR.
- CBT (cognitive behavior therapy) is a tried-and-true technique that has been shown to be effective in treating both generalized anxiety and OCD. CBT therapy for anxiety works by helping us to question the thoughts and beliefs that contribute to anxiety, obsessions, and compulsions, then formulate new beliefs or create a new, more flexible frame of reference.
- Other types of anxiety, such as those related to trauma, respond more readily to techniques such as EMDR. Rather than challenging and changing thoughts, EMDR therapy for anxiety involves processing anxiety-related memories using physical movements, helping us to reprocess troubling memories.
- Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), a mindfulness-based intervention, was developed specifically to treat social anxiety disorder. Like PTSD, ACT therapy for anxiety does not have a goal of changing negative thoughts. Instead, the focus is on accepting these thoughts without either believing them or fighting them.
- Exposure therapy is an especially effective intervention for working with phobias and agoraphobia. With this technique, we learn to gradually approach or expose ourselves to the situation or object we fear while using relaxation techniques. For instance, in the case of systematic desensitization, we may first imagine the frightening situation, then approach it in real life gradually through a series of steps working toward our final goal.
Schedule your free consultation so we can discuss how anxiety counseling may benefit you.