Fear did not evolve to be "overcome." We are not descendant from the early humans who were able to say, “There’s a saber tooth tiger there, but I’m not going to let it ruin my day.” Read More
I really appreciate the way you distinguished anxiety from fear. This might explain why I've never particularly liked expressions like, "face your fears." Expressions like that always made me feel like a coward even though I find it perfectly natural to respond to an innate aspect of human nature. I agree that fear has its purpose and it shouldn't be ignored. Perhaps the expression should be closer to: "face your anxieties."
I find that people have associated anxiety with fear so much that the line between the two has been blurred beyond recognition.
This is a great point.
And the saber tooth line made me laugh out loud, rare for a PT article :)
An interesting article, although my wife and I play opposite roles in the dark parking lot.
I have a lot of muscle tension issues that stem from anxiety. And a lot of dealing with that has been becoming aware of that physical tension so that I can deal with it before the tension results in chronic pain. As a result, I'm having a bit of trouble using the 'gut' versus 'mind' view to distinguish anxiety from fear.
For those of us who tense up with our anxiety, is there another distinction we could use? Or am I just chronically afraid?
I loved this article, the contents which described here are just superb and informative for all the anxiety fellow.
Dear Dr. Stosny: Thank you for clarifying the difference between visceral fear and anxiety. I think you did an excellent job explaining how and why they're different. I think it's important for people to understand the distinction between the two to understand the root of of our physical reactions.
Thanks - Bill
I strongly disagree with your dichotomisation of anxiety and fear. Fear is the general mechanism while anxiety is the physiological and cognitive response to psychological fears. It is still FEAR, but it is a more diffuse fear and a response to a more diffuse danger of which the ancestral 3 F's are ill equipped to respond to. With strong neural connectivity the PFC is not completely sidelined and is able to intervene. Anxiety is produced by weakened cognitive intervention mechanisms.
The PFC regulates all affect and all affect amplifies and magnifies, i.e., sets off an alarm that can seem like fear but is not. Most anxiety is stimulated by imagining the experience of shame, guilt, sorrow, loss, disgust, jealousy, etc., and only some by fear of harm or vulnerability to harm. In fact anxiety about failure often overrides fear of harm and annihilation, as in death before dishonor. Reductionist jargon about mechanisms has no real world meaning to anyone reading a blog.
Ha ... I'm not the one proposing false dichotomies.
Whether it's imagined or real, it's still fear.
For those of us who are living with fear and anxiety, this distinction is very helpful for wading through the cues our bodies are giving us. I have had a year of major stress and anxiety as a student in an extremely difficult program of study. This has included financial worries as a single mother living on student loans. But I was also experiencing major visceral responses which I was largely ignoring or was confusing as anxiety until my program of study had finished and I had some quiet time for processing. Just before my program finished, I broke off a relationship with a man who did not hurt me, but had spoken of violence he wanted to inflict on others. Having been in an abusive relationship in the past, I definitely have built-in defence mechanisms, but I wasn't able to recognize the physicality of those defences. Since breaking off this last relationship, I experienced nausea, insomnia, shaking, etc. whenever I have spoken with this man, even though there was never any violence towards me. I was experiencing these things throughout my studies and thought it was just anxiety, but now that both the program and the relationship are over, I can see that my body was giving me warning signals about the relationship, because these warnings were present only when he was present.
Learning to listen to fear cues vs. acknowledging anxiety is an extremely important distinction for the layman like myself who cannot easily distinguish when to "take a chill pill", and when to actually physically flee. Maybe offering a different discussion column would help for those who want to get picky over whether anxiety falls under the fear category or not. Those of us who need practical advice that will help us in the very real now of abusive relationships can get discouraged when reading the additional lofty discussions. This is the first article I have come across that has given me the okay to listen to the fear cues my body is giving me. Usually advice is paternalistic and trite. This article has actually made me grateful to my body instead of feeling at odds with it.
Following is my hypothesis about the origin of human anxiety based on my observations of the orienting reflex in nonhuman species:
Ivan Pavlov’s Orienting Reflex and Human Anxiety
Pavlov termed the response towards an unexpected stimulus the “Orienting Reflex”, which is often abbreviated as O.R. in articles on classical conditioning. When an animal (including a human animal) orients his or her senses towards a stimulus in order to ascertain the nature of the stimulus and to determine whether the stimulus signifies something to either avoid, approach, or ignore, that animal is displaying the Orienting Reflex. When I observed black bears, they would turn towards an unexpected stimulus and direct their eyes and ears toward the stimulus. They sometimes stood on hind legs in order to get a better view of the source of the stimulus and often elevated their snouts in order to detect the scent or odor of the stimulus. They froze in place and moved little, if at all, their breathing was shallow or suspended, and their muscles were tensed. Once they had ascertained the significance of the stimulus, they behaved in one of four ways. They approached the source of the stimulus, they turned and walked or ran away from the stimulus, they maintained an unmoving posture, presumably to attract as little attention as possible, or they resumed the activity that had preceded the O.R. The bears I observed displayed the O.R. most frequently towards unexpected sounds, sights, and odors, as far as I could determine.
Humans display the O.R. just as do all vertebrate (and invertebrate?) species, following the same basic pattern of responses that bears display when orienting to a stimulus. But humans carry the orienting response one step farther. Since we recollect memories of past experiences, we orient towards our thoughts as well as towards external stimuli. The sensory centers (visual, auditory, olfactory, and gustatory centers) in the brain are activated as if we were orienting towards an external stimulus. Our muscles tense, movement diminishes, and breathing becomes shallow or stops temporarily. If the thought we are orienting towards seems threatening, then we display observably defensive or aggressive behaviors. This response pattern, I believe, is the basis for anxiety. Anxiety is actually an orienting response directed towards our own thoughts. Since we tend to recycle threatening thoughts in a positive feedback loop, the orienting response therefore continues to be activated and the experience of anxiety is prolonged until we are no longer imagining the threatening thought. If we can deliberately redirect our thoughts away from the threatening thought, then the orienting response eventually decreases and disappears. Whether other species orient towards recollected thoughts in the manner that humans do, I don’t know, but it is conceivable that they do.
Robert H. Jordan, Ph.D., Louisiana Licensed Psychologist
More information about formatting options
Steven Stosny, Ph.D., treats people for anger and relationship problems. Recent books: How to Improve your Marriage without Talking about It, and Love Without Hurt.
It can take a radical reboot to get past old hurts and injustices.