The Dance of Connection

Rescuing women and men from the quicksand of difficult relationships.

Fear vs. Anxiety

What's the real distinction between fear and anxiety?

Most of us make some distinction between fear and anxiety. Sometimes it's merely a matter of linguistics. We say we have a fear of something (flying, aging) and anxiety about something (flying, aging).

Sometimes we distinguish the two by our bodily experience. I'm sure you're aware that the neurobiology of fear is different than the neurobiology of anxiety. The sudden re-arrangement of your guts when an intruder holds a knife to your back (fear), is different from the mild nausea, dizziness and butterflies in your stomach as you're about to make a difficult phone call (anxiety).

Anxiety is also the word of choice to describe lingering apprehension, or a chronic sense of worry or tension, the sources of which may be totally unclear.

But the notion that "fear" always connotes something bigger and stronger than "anxiety" breaks down in real life experience.

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You can have a short-lived fear response to the bee buzzing around your face, and you can wake up at three in the morning awash in anxiety that won't let you get back to sleep.

When the distinction between "anxiety" and "fear" isn't critical to the discussion at hand, I use just one of these words as the umbrella term in my book, The Dance of Fear.

Anxiety, apprehension, fear, terror--however you name it, what matters is how you cope.

In everyday conversation, we use the language of emotions that we're comfortable with and that fits our psychological complexion. I've worked with clients who don't report feeling anxious or afraid. "I'm incredibly stressed out..." is their language of choice. "Stressed" is the codeword for "totally freaked out" for people who are allergic to identifying and sharing their own vulnerability.

Or, at the other linguistic extreme, a woman in therapy tells me that she feels "sheer terror" at the thought that her daughter's wedding dress will not fit her properly. I know her well enough to translate "sheer terror" into "really, really, worried."

Whatever your emotional vocabulary, no one signs up for anxiety, fear and shame, or for any difficult, uncomfortable emotion. But we can't avoid these feelings, either.

I am convinced that the more we can look these uninvited guests in the eye, with patience and curiosity, and the more we learn to spot their wisdom as well as their mischief, the less grip they will have on us.

Only when we experience our emotions as both potential stumbling blocks and wise guides--not either/or--can we begin to live more fully in the present and move into the future with courage, clarity, humor, and hope.

Harriet Lerner, Ph.D., is best known for her work on marriage and family relationships and the psychology of women. Her book The Dance of Anger has recently been reissued.

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