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Published June 15, 2021
The saying goes “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” — but there’s a lot of scary things out there. Managing our fear and anxiety well — and knowing the difference between the two — is important to our mental health and career success.
Back when we lived in caves, we needed to constantly assess whether we were safe. A highly-tuned sensitivity to potential threats was necessary for survival. We don’t experience the same kinds of stressors as we did thousands of years ago, but the response is pretty much the same.
Fear is the emotion we experience when we see a threat to our physical or emotional well-being. Our bodies — and brains — react to both kinds of threats in the same way. In other words, it makes no difference whether the threat is a physical, emotional, or social one. The alarm bells of the autonomic nervous system don’t distinguish between public speaking and a saber toothed tiger. In fact, many of us would prefer the latter.
Although unpleasant, fear is a healthy response. Our fight-or-flight response keeps us alive, safe, and thriving. When constant fear prevents you from living life to the fullest, though, it becomes anxiety.
On the surface, anxiety looks very much like fear. And they're rooted in the same emotion. But anxiety occurs when fear becomes maladaptive (the psychological term for when a normal response gets out of control). Anxiety is when the fear response goes haywire. You may feel afraid all the time, overreact, or respond to triggers that don’t actually pose a threat.
While fear is something that people experience regularly, anxiety should not be a part of your day-to-day life (easier said than done for most). Fear is an emotion, and anxiety is a mental health disorder. The symptoms of fear go away on their own when the threat dissipates. Symptoms of anxiety, however, persist and often must be managed with medication and therapy.
Fear symptoms and anxiety symptoms overlap in many ways, but the reason they occur are different. Both fear and anxiety trigger the body’s stress response. However, fear usually occurs in the face of a “real” or immediate, tangible threat, while anxiety occurs in response to imagined danger.
Fear is a (generally) short-lived reaction, while anxiety can be ever-present. Both share physical sensations, like racing heart, muscle tension, a tingle or a cold chill, and increased breathing rate. These physical sensations are part of the body’s fight-or-flight response. They prepare you to take quick action by diverting your resources to necessary functions.
Symptoms of fear include:
- Startle response, usually a sudden movement like flinching or jumping
- A feeling of trepidation or anticipation tied to something specific
- Nervous reaction (like laughing or fidgeting)
- A feeling of relief after perceived threat is extinguished
Symptoms of anxiety include:
- Feeling dissociated, irritable, angry, or tense
- Elevated heart rate, shortness of breath, and shaking
- Trouble sleeping and inability to relax
- Forgetfulness and lack of focus
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Fear and anxiety often overlap. As noted above, they share many of the same symptoms. But someone that has anxiety will have a more sensitive fear trigger. Even situations that don’t present an immediate threat may cause feelings of fear.
For example, imagine that you are in an office and see a group of coworkers chatting casually. This stimulus is fairly innocuous. However, if you have anxiety, you may begin to experience racing thoughts, nervousness, and have trouble saying hello to them. Do your coworkers pose a threat?
In this case, yes. There is no immediate threat or inherent danger — your colleagues aren’t about to run you over or attack you (probably). But if you, say, are concerned that they may be talking about you, you’re responding to the perceived threat. Your response is appropriate for what might happen, not what’s happening now.
So what’s wrong with that? People gossip, right? And weren’t they probably talking about you? You wouldn’t feel this way unless it were true, right? Not so fast.
We assume that our emotions are “triggered” in response to a certain stimulus. In other words, we react to whatever is happening around us, and we trust our emotions to give us feedback on what we see. However, that’s not true. Remember the fight-or-flight response? It’s not really a response — well, not a response to the stimulus, that is. Emotion researcher Lisa Feldman Barrett says that the brain uses sensory input to predict what will happen next. Based on its prediction, the brain generates a physical response, which we read as emotion.
Why this extra step? Through our experiences and learning, your brain has gotten quite good at predicting. It’s helpful because a reactive brain would be too slow to get you out of danger efficiently. However, when we’ve gotten used to “predicting” (read: interpreting) everything as a threat, our anxiety levels are high all the time. There’s no actual threat, but there’s so many things that might happen to worry about.
Our body’s response to fear is to activate the sympathetic nervous system — whether the threat is real or imagined. This evolved to work as a short-term boost to get us out of danger, and isn’t well suited for managing vague, continued threats. Over time, fear and anxiety can have adverse effects on the mind, emotions, and body.
- You may have racing thoughts, feel overwhelmed or unable to slow down.
- You may feel paranoid, concerned about your performance or whether you’ll be “found out” as an impostor.
- You may experience reduced ability to focus, cognitive impairment, and inability to get into flow.
- You may feel irritable, impatient, or frustrated with those around you.
- You may have difficulty acknowledging your successes and achievements.
- You might be emotionally exhausted and feeling like you're at the end of your rope.
- You may experience unexplained physical feelings, aches, and pains, including headaches.
- You may feel fatigued, even after a full night’s sleep.
- You might have trouble relaxing or sitting still.
When people talk about fear and anxiety, they often use the words interchangeably. But there’s a whole range of experiences on the anxiety spectrum. In fact, the DSM-5 actually classifies anxiety as a subset of mood disorders, and there are several different kinds. Learning to label the experience may help you feel better able to control it.
Here are some common terms used to describe fear and anxiety:
The term anxiety disorder refers to a classification of mental health diagnoses that result in anxiety symptoms. These include phobias and panic attacks. They also include obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Anxiety disorders have basic symptoms in common, but can differ in severity.
A panic attack usually happens suddenly and without a specific trigger. Whereas many symptoms of anxiety are mental, panic attacks are notable for strong physical sensations. In fact, many people having panic attacks believe that they are experiencing a heart attack. During a panic attack, people often feel an overwhelming sense of dread and as if they're about to die. It is difficult to function through a panic attack. Despite the severity of panic symptoms, it is not always possible to tell that someone is having a panic attack by looking at them.
Phobias are panic responses that occur in response to a specific stimulus. Typically the person experiencing the panic attack will be able to name what caused it. They have likely had phobia attacks before. The responses to these phobias can range from mild to debilitating. In order to classify as a true phobia, the aversion has to result in impairment to their daily life. People with phobias sometimes go to great lengths to avoid the trigger.
Managing fear and anxiety isn’t always easy. However, you can build your skills in managing your emotional response. Developing self-awareness is a great first step in overcoming your fears and anxiety.
Here are 7 steps to learn how to overcome fear and anxiety at work:
1. Notice how you feel
Not everyone is good at talking about their emotions. Being able to identify your anxiety is a helpful first step. What sensations clue you in to your emotional state? Do you have trouble breathing, sweaty palms, or a stomachache? Practice reading that as a physical cue instead of being carried away by it.
2. Own the fear
Have you ever been on the verge of tears and tried to stop them from coming? It’s extremely difficult. Trying to ignore your fearful thoughts is just as hard. Stop wasting emotional energy trying to be okay. That energy is better used to reach out for help.
Even though “take a deep breath” is probably not what you want to hear, there’s a reason why it works. Deep breathing activates your parasympathetic nervous system. Breathing, mindfulness meditation, and other relaxation techniques deactivate the body’s stress response.
4. Check in with yourself again
How are you feeling now, and what is the next best step to take? Should you take a walk? Do you need to remove yourself from your current situation or reach out to someone? This is an interim measure to give yourself a chance to choose the response that best serves you.
5. Handle your basic biological needs
Your body only has so many physiological sensations, so it’s easy to confuse them. Your brain may interpret a fluttering sensation in the stomach as love or stage fright. What if it’s just hunger? Drink a glass of water and eat something (preferably with some nutritional value). Do you still feel anxious?
6. Take your negative thoughts to trial
Ask yourself, “What am I afraid of? Is it happening right now or is it an imagined threat?” If you have the time, talk through your fearful thoughts or write out what happened and how you feel. Then imagine a response that makes you feel empowered.
7. Get back in the arena
Now that you have a clearer understanding of why you feel how you feel, decide the best course of action. Do you need to have a conversation with someone? Is there an action you need to take? Don’t procrastinate. Lingering tasks have a way of producing more anxiety. Being proactive will help you feel more in-control and boost your self-confidence, both now and in future stressful situations.
Sometimes, it’s not possible to manage your anxiety problems by yourself — and that’s okay. If you’ve tried the above steps with no luck (or they just feel like too much), reach out to a coach or counselor.
As mentioned earlier, learning how to manage fear and anxiety are a natural part of life. The fear response was evolved to help us. But it becomes maladaptive when it interferes with your ability to function.
Your anxiety symptoms may be more than you can manage alone if:
- You often feel overwhelmed
- You have trouble completing routine daily tasks
- You can’t function as you normally do at work
- You have to cancel work or social events due to social anxiety
- You take action or plan your activities around avoiding your triggers
If any of these statements are true, reach out to a mental health professional for support.
Anxiety is often managed by a combination of medication and cognitive psychotherapy. Neither intervention has to be forever. A therapist will work with you to manage the immediate symptoms. Joining a support group can give you insight into others' experiences overcoming fear. The goal is to improve your overall state of being while you learn how to naturally overcome anxiety in your daily life.
Learning how to overcome fear and anxiety takes self-awareness and strength — and a healthy dose of courage. You don’t have to manage it alone. A coach or counselor can help you master the skills to overcome anxiety and fear.
BetterUp Staff Writer
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