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Overcome Anxiety, Not Fear

Protect from within.

I’m always uncomfortable when I read the term, “overcoming fear,” having spent a good part of my career urging people in dangerous intimate relationships to heed their fear.

As a primary protective emotion, fear is not to be “overcome.” But like all emotions, this most primitive one (shared by all mammals) is a signal about a possible reality, which must be tested against actual reality – what is the sensed danger and how likely is it to be harmful? As we begin to think in terms of assessment and probability we engage larger areas of the prefrontal cortex, which automatically regulates the fear signal to match a more accurate appraisal of possible danger.

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!” We’re descendant from the ones who ran away, hid, or appraised the danger - and their coping skills - sufficiently to fend off the threat.

Use of the phrase “overcoming fear” typically conflates acquired anxiety responses with the innate and more primitive emotion. Anxiety is a dread that something bad will happen and that you will not be able to cope with it. Most of the time anxiety functions as a better safe-than-sorry alarm system; it overestimates the likelihood of bad things happening and underestimates your ability to cope with them. This means that by the time you're an adult your anxiety has produced a lot of false alarms - most of the bad things you thought would happen didn't, or if they did, they weren't that bad, or if they were, you handled them better than you thought you would. In general, it’s the unanticipated misfortunes that wreak the most psychological harm, part of which is regret for not having experienced sufficient anxiety to anticipate them and, thereby, head off the danger.

Because semantic conflation is common, it’s useful to contrast anxiety with fear.

Anxiety is stimulated by a possible change that might cause unpleasantness, failure, or loss. Fear is stimulated by a sense of immiment harm or vulnerability to harm (e.g., isolation or deprivation).

Anxiety is about you – your capacities, talents, skills, lovability, etc., - being tested or exposed. Fear is about danger in the environment.

Anxiety is mostly mental – in your head. Fear is more visceral – felt in your body.

Anxiety is largely self-initiated and subject to self-regulation. Fear is more reactive to danger in the environment and much harder to self-regulate without change in the environment.

Anxiety is mostly inaccurate, based on possibility rather than probability. Fear is more accurate in detecting danger cues in environment.

Anxiety is about the future or, more accurately, imagination based on past experience projected into the future. Fear is about the imminent.

Visceral Fear of Harm

Although it can occasionally seem similar to anxiety, there is one kind of reaction that does not give many false alarms and that you must never doubt. I call it visceral fear of harm. It's a feeling in your muscles and in your gut that you will be physically injured. Unlike anxiety, which is based in part on your imagination, visceral fear of harm is a response to physiological cues that your body picks up when you are close to someone who feels aggressive. This visceral feeling comes over you more abruptly and with greater intensity than mere anxiety about having a bad evening or even a dread of possible distress, depression, or other worries.

Visceral fear of harm is not cognitive; you sense aggressive impulses in others before your brain can formulate thoughts about possible danger. That's why you get tense in certain situations, like seeing certain strangers, without knowing why. Because estrogen enhances fear, women have a heightened sense of this early-warning system, and because testosterone blocks awareness of physiological arousal, men underestimate (and often dismiss) the fear of their female partners. That is also why your man remains perfectly calm - or perhaps even gets annoyed with your nervousness - as you walk through a darkened parking garage at night.

The Most Dangerous Kind of Self-Doubt

Although visceral fear of harm is compelling, many people begin to doubt it when the physical threat comes from someone they love, and especially when they have learned to walk on eggshells to avoid unpleasant home situations. In that case powerful emotions like love, guilt, shame, and abandonment anxiety can easily cause you to doubt the internal alarm system meant to keep you safe from harm.

For instance, you may feel guilty or ashamed if you admit to fear of a loved one, as if your involuntary reaction to threat were a betrayal of the beloved. It may also be that you have figured out that your fear activates your partner’s anger and you end up fearing (and trying to suppress) your fear. Or your dread of losing your partner might exceed your fear of him/her. Or your love might be so strong that you want to believe that your fear could not possibly be valid, that it's all in your head. Actually, it's quite the opposite. Love, guilt, shame, and abandonment anxiety are in your head; visceral fear of harm resides in your body and reflexes.

If you are in a conflictive relationship, get used to monitoring your body - how you feel around your eyes, in your neck, shoulders, back, chest, arms, hands, stomach, gut, thighs, and knees. These are the most reliable indicators of whether your partner poses a threat to your physical safety. These cues are more reliable than what your partner says, simply because the effects of testosterone will blunt his awareness of how aroused and prepared for aggression he is during domestic conflict. Your partner may have no intention of hurting you, but his/her body is at a hair-trigger level of arousal when you experience visceral fear of harm.

If your body tells you that you are in danger, you must put your physical safety first, even if your partner has never been violent in the past. I have seen too many cases of people who ignored their visceral fear of harm and were badly hurt as a result. Please do not ignore yours.


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