If you’re filled with anxiety or fear, it’s not that pleasant to say the least. Your heart rate increases. Your muscles tense. You might experience shortness of breath and sweating, even tunnel vision. Your thoughts can go racing out of control and all of this is even worse if you have generalized, or social anxiety.
This is why many of us consider anxiety and fear to be negative emotions. However, while they might not be particularly nice, they might actually serve an important purpose, and it would be extremely hard to get by in life without them.
What Are Anxiety and Fear?
Both are perfectly natural human emotions, and are triggered when you think you’re in danger, or at risk from some kind of harm. Together they act as our alarm system, and help us survive.
Fear is experienced when we are actually in a dangerous situation.
Anxiety occurs when we think something unpleasant is about to happen.
If you’re on a roller coaster, for example, you’d experience anxiety as you slowly climb up that first big hill, anticipating the terrifying plunge down the other side. And fear is what you’d experience as you’re actually doing it.
What Do Anxiety and Fear Do?
They’re preparing us to respond to danger, and all of the sensations described earlier are part of that process. You may have heard it called our ‘fight or flight’ response, and it’s been around for a long, long time. In fact, we probably wouldn’t be around today, as a species, if this inbuilt alarm system hadn’t kept us out of danger. Because it’s so engrained in us, though, it’s an automatic response that can be activated instantaneously, whether we want it or not.
When Anxiety and Fear Disrupt Your Life
Anxiety and fear have helped us get this far. They’ve been useful, and continue to act as
an alarm system for many dangerous situations. They still have their downsides though.
As humans we have the ability to think, and use our imagination to forecast possible future scenarios.
If you’re going for a job interview, or even a first date, for example, your mind will start thinking about how it might go, what could happen when you get there. If you picture yourself tripping over your words, or even the floor (!) or any number of undesirable outcomes, then you’re going to get nervous, and anxiety will set it.
Doesn’t matter that none of these things have actually happened as yet, your mind is powerful enough to visualise the negative outcome so convincingly, that your body’s natural alarm system kicks into gear. The result of this could be that you’re so nervous, you do indeed stumble over your words, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of a kind. Alternatively, you may begin to engage in some kind of avoidance behaviour.
You might decide not to go on the date and miss out on meeting a wonderful person.
Or you might decide to go for a different type of job, opting instead for an easier, less challenging one that will deliver very little stress, imagined or not. The problem with this, of course, is that living your life to avoid any anxiety or fear, will severely limit your ability to build a full, meaningful, and positive life.
In addition to avoidance behaviours limiting your experience in life, anxiety and fear can also take you out of the moment and prevent you from enjoying what’s right in front of you.
If you’re constantly worrying about negative things happening to your children, for example, it may prevent you from really engaging with them. You’ll be distracted, and less likely to enjoy spending time with them.
And it’s the same with friends. If you’re constantly ruminating about something bad that happened during the day, you won’t be able to connect, and enjoy your time with them properly.
Anxiety and Fear in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
If you’re suffering from PTSD, you may experience anxiety and fear more frequently, and much more intensely than most. This is because the trauma has caused your fight-or-flight response to become more sensitive. You may also be hypervigilant to signals of danger or threat in their environment, making you feel on edge, fearful or tense on a constant basis. This can be exhausting, debilitating, and you may require professional help to address the situation.
Anxiety and Fear can also be useful
Anxiety and fear also have upsides, as they can highlight something is important to you.
If you’re worried about your children, for example, it’s probably because you care about them very much. If you didn’t have a strong relationship with them, chances are you’d experience a lot less stress, worry and anxiety. And if you’re nervous about that job interview, it’s because you really want the job.
If you didn’t care about any of these things, then you wouldn’t be triggering your fight-or-flight reaction. What we need to learn to do, however, is to override our natural tendencies.
Even when your body is telling you to avoid something, you can make a conscious decision to move forward anyway. You may not have much control over your emotions or thoughts, however you can try to control your behaviour. At any moment, regardless of what you feel on the inside, you can make a choice to engage in behaviours that are consistent with your goals, and press on regardless.
Coping With Anxiety and Fear
If you’re prone to elevated levels of anxiety and fear, there are skills you can learn to make life a little easier. Diaphragmatic breathing, for example, might be an effective tool to help you manage it, and awareness-practice may also help you take a step back from unpleasant thoughts and emotions, allowing you to better connect with your experience of the moment.
The next time you experience anxiety or fear, try to examine it. Ask yourself if it’s coming from a real or imagined threat. If the danger is genuine take the proper precaution, but if it’s simply an indicator that your care deeply about the subject, then put your foot down, make the choice to move forward, and take your anxiety along for the ride.
Esther van der Sande, The School of Self-Care