Anxiety is a mental state characterized by a range of unpleasant features, including apprehension, worry, rumination (which functions as attempts to control your worry), various types of nervous behavior, and physical complaints. Rumination is replaying a problem over and over in your mind, which leads to worse emotional states. It can be accompanied by a sense of terror, dread, and preparation for flight. This nervous preparation for flight can eventually transform into fatigue, muscular strain and soreness, and difficulties in concentration (which may be due to exhaustion). What makes anxiety different from basic fear is that fear is tied to some specific threat, while anxiety tends to be more free-floating, or may be tied to a future threat. Furthermore, anxiety is unpleasant both to the person experiencing it as well as to others seeing it in others.
Fear is a necessary component of survival, as the flight-or-fight response is hard-wired in our brains to help us deal with acute danger in the environment…this is the adrenaline response, where our body prepares to respond to the danger by increasing heart rate, increasing breathing, dilating our pupils, tensing our muscles, and shutting down our digestive system in order to focus our body’s energy on other systems needed for optimal response. When we perceive danger, adrenaline (a stress hormone) is released into the bloodstream and prepares our body, so we decide to either run away from the danger, or we stop to prepare to handle the danger if needed.
Anxiety is needed for healthy development…without anxiety, we would be too comfortable in our current state, and would be less likely to change and be successful. Anxiety in healthy amounts helps us focus and be more alert, thereby contributing to the completion of important tasks. For example, a deadline at work or school comes up, and the anxiety felt by the looming deadline helps you focus and be more alert, allowing you to work harder to fulfill the project by the deadline. Without anxiety, we become complacent and we are less likely to meet the deadline or complete the project. Anxiety is needed in healthy doses to develop and achieve goals in life. People who excel under pressure are masters of utilizing their anxiety to their advantage to achieve.
At times, anxiety gets overwhelming…we all get “stressed-out” to the point where our worries and nervousness become so prominent that the anxiety takes on a life of its own, so that we are not able to function. The anxiety makes you unhappy over not being able to achieve what you are so worried about. Some can handle these brief episodes of stressed-out periods, and recover to once again have healthy anxiety, which helps you to perform and have good feelings about yourself. However, others may not be able to recover from stress, overwhelming their coping abilities, and the anxiety starts to affect functioning, quality of life, and relationships. And similar to fear, anxiety is associated with an adrenaline response…the difference is that fear is triggered by a real danger in the environment, whereas anxiety is tied to some future threat or tied to the ways you are thinking (anxiety is literally in your head). So if you have chronic anxiety, then the adrenaline response becomes chronic. So imagine a state a chronic anxiety, where you are “juiced up” all the time with all the physical changes that occur with the adrenaline response. Our bodies are not meant to be in that flight-or-fight response on a chronic, long term basis, so our bodies take a beating and start to fatigue and break down. Chronic anxiety is not healthy for the mind or body.
In summary, fear is tied to a specific threat in the environment, whereas anxiety is tied to some future threat. So anxiety is literally in your head, affected by the way you think. Both fear and anxiety are associated with the release of adrenaline into the bloodstream. The adrenaline response (the fight or flight response) is adaptive and helpful when dealing with a real danger in the environment…it is not helpful when the danger is about some future threat (in your head). In other words, anxiety sets off the fight or flight response without any real danger in the environment, and this is obviously not adaptive or helpful. For more information on fear and anxiety, read my anxiety book, Anxiety Protocol. Anxiety Protocol can help you to differentiate fear from anxiety, and can help you to eradicate anxiety and the unhelpful adrenaline response associated with anxiety.