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What’s the difference between Anxiety and Fear?

I have been asked many times to help people make a distinction between what is healthy and helpful fear versus unhealthy and unhelpful anxiety. The difference between them can be difficult to distinguish at times. One reason for this is because they have the same physiological effects. Healthy fear and unhealthy anxiety both activate our Sympathetic Nervous System which activates the Fight or Flight Syndrome in order to charge us up and prepare us to act (to either run away from or to attack the threat). The clear differences between the two exist in their reaction to compliance and their impact on your life.

First off, fear is a natural protective function that develops in response to real threats. A real threat is something that can actually harm you. Let’s say fire, for example. Fire has the ability to actually harm you and take away your life. Having a fear of fire means that you recognize fire’s potential and act accordingly to prevent yourself from being harmed. Listening to your fear of fire protects your life, produces a healthy outcome (a healthy existence), and fear diminishes as a result of “listening to it”.

Anxiety, on the other hand, grows out of fear and while seeming like a protective function, is actually a debilitating function. Anxiety encourages you to avoid something that does not have a direct and immediate risk to your safety or health. For example, someone who has trouble telling others “no” (anxiety about other’s opinions of them) often thinks about the “what if” questions that lead to awkward social interactions or strained relationships. The act of saying “no” and disappointing someone poses no direct threat (even though it may feel uncomfortable). And when you “listen to anxiety” (and avoid the thing anxiety tells you is dangerous), anxiety grows. Once you have avoided saying “no” the first time, it feels harder to say “no” the second time because an association has begun to develop in your mind between feeling threatened (anxiety) and the act of saying “no”.

Judge fear and anxiety by the fruit that they bear. Listening to fear leads to a life-sustaining outcome and fear diminishes. Listening to anxiety leads to a life-draining outcome and anxiety grows stronger. Appreciate your fear and get rid of your anxiety. Call LCL today and talk to a clinician about ways of reducing your anxiety!

Shawn Healy, PhD

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Find our full post on Tips for Lawyers and Law Students to Reduce Anxiety here.

 

 

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