What is Anxiety & do I Have it?
Updated: Jan 9
Anxiety can be experienced as fear, and in every day language, we often use them to mean the similar things. However, there is a subtle difference between the two, so it can help to look at both.
Fear is our body's (physiological) response to a specific and real danger. Ever look over the edge of a cliff, or come face-to-face with a snarling dog?
Fear is our protective survival mechanism, to help us escape. Your brain will cause adrenaline to release, your heart will beat faster, your breathing will be shallow and fast, and we may flinch or tremble.
Biologically, you are preparing for flight, fight or freeze, we don't usually have time to think about this, it just happens.
Anxiety can be similar in experience, since we can have fear at the same time, yet anxiety is our (cognitive) response about something we perceive will happen. And that's just it, anxiety comes from our own thoughts, influenced by how we interpret the world around us - all our beliefs, values, prior experiences and so on. So, perhaps a situation where there might be a snarling dog. Or, taking another example, we may have anxiety around a job interview where, in all seriousness, there is usually no real danger, although we may be thinking things like: "What if they don't like me?", "What if I answer something wrong or make a mistake?", "What if I'm late", "What if ...", "What if ...". So a perceived fear of all the different aspects of a job interview that could happen, rather than fear of something that is happening.
It is perfectly ok to have fear and anxiety too. We want to prevent ourselves falling off cliff or get away from a dangerous dog, don't we? And we want to perceive these same dangers too. Seems sensible enough, right? But when does anxiety become a problem for us?
It's not usually desirable for us to feel anxious but when it's for no real reason, it can be very unwanted and confusing, including for those around us too. It's perhaps worst still if we are feeling anxious excessively, or about an event that happened long ago. It can also be a problem if it's causing us to avoid situations (so to avoid the feelings). When anxiety arises in this way, it can erode relationships, occupy our time and energy and prevent us doing things we so desperately want to do. It can even bring on full blown panic attacks. If this is the case, we may have a Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD).
It's worth noting, anxiety is also a common symptom of many other health issues, such as PTSD or OCD, and there are several types of anxiety other than GAD, including separation and social anxiety, and phobias are in the mix too. Without the labels, it could be we are just feeling more anxious than we want to be, and want to change this.
By talking about fear and anxiety, what we're really doing is distinguishing emotions as physical reactions, and our feelings as our conscious experience of perceiving these emotions. That may sound confusing, since often the words 'feelings' and 'emotions' are used to mean one and the same thing in every day language. But what's really useful here, is to realise our thoughts directly influence how we feel, and therefore changing how we think can dramatically alter how we feel.
This is good news, and is how counselling can be highly effective with addressing problematic anxiety, particularly working with CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy). Identifying and confronting our fears and anxiety in safe way, with the help and support of a therapist, means you can overcome these problems, however they have uniquely manifested in your life. All phobias, for example, can be successfully worked with in exposure therapy too.
It's understandable, you may have fear of speaking to a counsellor and entering therapy itself. A useful thing to remember with counselling is: if it's uncomfortable for you, that's the place to go, because that's where the growth is. This is how we can change. Counsellors are trained to help listen and respond to you, to help you facilitate your personal growth, and be with you every step of the way. If you are concerned about something, or experience things in your life you don't want any more, take that first step and speak to somebody, you may be surprised at what you can achieve.