A PERSON OFTEN TRIES to categorise what they experience, but essentially they’re just different levels of the same state. A sort of ‘anxiety scale’, with worry and mild concern are at one end of the spectrum, progressing through anxiety, to fear and blind panic at the other.
I’m sure I’ve used the terms interchangeably myself on this site, and it doesn’t really matter as long as we all know what we’re talking about at any given time. The basic difference is:
- Worry and anxiety – A set of responses to an unknown, imprecise or ill defined threat; often anticipatory in nature and created by the imagination. It’s more associated with the need to be prepared. Worry leads to feeling anxious.
- Fear and panic – A set of responses to a known, precise, well defined threat, which can be real or vividly imagined. It’s mainly about avoidance and escape. In its extreme form, fear becomes panic.
Anxiety / Panic Sequence
In short, anxiety and fear start in different parts of the brain but elicit similar responses because they end up in the same place. To clarify things, here’s a definition of all four showing how they relate to each other.
This is the thought process that creates the feelings and emotions experienced as anxiety. Worrying can be useful in helping to find solutions to problems; however, worrying often centres on problems that cannot currently be solved. Thinking soon becomes very negative and doom laden, and this is misusing the imagination.
This worrisome thinking style can easily create the conditions that make a person feel anxious:
- Helplessness – Insufficient information to handle the situation.
- Over stimulation – Too much information, or information overload.
- Incongruity – Conflicting information.
- Unpredictability – Having an uncertain outcome.
It’s a bit like being on ‘yellow alert’; anxiety is about looking out for possible danger, and often centres on trying to find certainty in uncertain situations. It’s an attempt to stay safe – a survival tactic – by foreseeing and planning for every conceivable outcome; what if...
This worrying is often about the future, and because it’s too far away, the outcome cannot easily be determined. This leads to many unresolved ‘what ifs’, and a person seems to settle on the most catastrophic outcome, just in case... don’t you!
Subtle changes start to occur within the body, including:
- Jumpiness and feeling on edge.
- Heightened senses, looking out for danger.
- Muscles tensed, just in case physical action is required.
This approach serves us well when faced with a real potential threat. In caveman times it was wise to assume the rustling in the bushes might be a hungry lion. If it turned out to be a gust of wind, nothing was lost. It is, however, less than helpful when trying to evaluate a future situation in the mind.
Forecasting disaster scenarios leads to feeling apprehensive and fearful. Although very unlikely to happen, a person starts to imagine what those disasters would be like. Remember, the mind cannot tell the difference between reality and a vividly imagined thought, so they start to experience fear.
Fear is associated with more precise danger and starts to engage other survival tactics, like the fight or flight response. Like stepping up a level to ‘orange alert’; fear is one stage away from panic. A definite threat of danger, or at least something unpleasant, has been sensed. This could be something tangible or something imagined; a future based ‘what if’.
The intensity of the fear depends upon:
- The seriousness or unpleasantness of the threat.
- How far into the future it is.
A person feels scared and afraid in anticipation, but at this moment they’re only thinking about a future event. It isn’t actually happening and hasn’t been classified as life threatening yet; therefore, full panic mode hasn’t been triggered. However, fear starts to engage the body’s ‘fight or flight’ response, especially if the object of that fear is imagined vividly, and physical changes are occurring within the body, including:
- Rapid breathing, to take in more oxygen.
- Raised heartbeat, to pump that oxygen rich blood to the muscles that have already been supercharged with adrenalin.
- Sweating, to both cool the body and give the hands better grip.
This state of fear can be experienced for prolonged periods when it’s due to thoughts and not a real situation. That’s why anxiety and fear can be extremely tiring, and it’s not the way it’s supposed to work at all. Fear is intended for short term survival not long term existence.
This state of readiness means the body can quickly step up to the full panic response if events deem it necessary.
This is essentially an extension of fear, but in an extreme form; feeling totally overwhelmed by the physical and mental feelings of it. It happens when faced with sudden life threatening danger at this very moment now. The panic response – ‘red alert’ – is vital in this situation because it gets the body instantly into the optimum state for survival; getting ready to fight or flee, or sometimes even freeze.
Panic is more often experienced in the context of a panic attack. In a truly dangerous situation the physical effects of panic are put to good use fighting or fleeing, and the person would be focusing on doing just that; not thinking about how they were feeling. It’s only when panic strikes for no apparent reason, that a person has chance to become aware of its many physical sensations.
One other emotional state often accompanies the above four; it’s called depression. While not directly related, depression indirectly shares some of the same negative thinking styles.
Constant anxiety and fear eventually leave a person feeling overwhelmed, and that life is hopeless. Feelings of hopelessness are a key characteristic of depression.
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