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Is there a difference between Fear and Anxiety?

Fear and Anxiety are often used interchangeably making it difficult to tell the difference, but there is actually a difference between the two, affecting the mind and body differently, and showing up differently as well. To understand the difference, think of fear as an emotion that shows up when feelings are suppressed for a long time, while anxiety is the physical manifestation of those suppressed feelings.

Fear happens when the signal from the environment changes the way you view the world, and that confirmation is felt through your senses, which in turn form the perception. If something is perceived as “bad”, you do everything to avoid it. The idea that something is "bad" was gathered from the environment which you were exposed to, and for most of us, it was what we grew up experiencing. The mind gathers the information from the environment through your senses, and the body experiences that information to make up your reality. If we think deeply about how this programming works in our lives, we'd realize that our lives are a series of programming, thoughts and ideas gathered from other people, therefore, we are subconsciously living other people's idea of what life should be, and not really our own. This is the imprint recorded and left in the subconscious based on exposure of our environments. Now the question is, what environment were you exposed to, and what imprint did it leave for you?

Some of our imprints foster growth, while others foster protection, which is what fear is. A person who struggles with intense fear almost to a paralyzing point has a history of times when they were made to feel not good enough, or made to feel small or told to stay in a child’s place which was interpreted as be quiet, or shut up; or being told that children are to be seen and not heard. This child learns to suppress feelings at a young age, interpreting them as bad or something that could get you in trouble. As an adult, this person is disconnected from their feelings, and will do anything to avoid them because it makes them feel uncomfortable. As an adult , this person also now struggles to exist in spaces that require them to show up confidently. They lack self-esteem, often doubtful, looking for acceptance and validation, and in most cases, this person struggles with imposter syndrome.

When a child is made to feel not good enough, they develop the idea of needing to overcompensate in order to feel good enough. They may find themselves ignoring their own needs or feelings just to be liked , they may become people pleasers, struggle to forgive themselves, have a strong need to be perfect or find it difficult accepting mistakes, judging themselves harshly as well. They tend to have a strong desire to show others their worth by behaving in ways they deem as acceptable. This is often seen in adult behaviors as well.

The irony of this is, oftentimes this person self-sabotages, and their worst fear becomes their reality further confirming the fear for them. For an example, a child who was made to feel not good enough, had to work for love and affection of their caretaker, may become an adult who struggles to let love in, or may not know what healthy love looks like. This person wants to experience a different type of love but finds themselves sabotaging exactly what they are wanting because it is unfamiliar to them. Another example of a child who had to prove themselves deserving of love may become an adult who overcompensate for love, and may find themselves doing anything for love even at the detriment of their own wellbeing, and their self worth become tied to getting something to help them feel good enough or worthy because they perceive themselves to be lacking something.

Another example would be a person who deals with extreme fear of rejection. Most often this person has a history of abandonment, or perceived abandonment. An adult dealing with fear of rejection finds themselves closing off to others, perceiving others as “just out to hurt/get them”, or viewing people as having no good intentions and wanting to take advantage of them, then the narrative becomes “why even bother to get to know someone when all they do is come into your life, take what they can get and leave” because everyone leaves.

If this fear is not worked through properly in therapy, the reality of the narrative is confirmed every time making it even real and believable, further limiting potentials and experiences. This person continues to have the same experiences just as they thought it would be further confirming their idea of people coming into their lives with no good intentions by evidence of the people and experiences they encounter.

How does anxiety show up in fear?

Anxiety is the body's physical response to your thoughts. The body carries out the thoughts of the mind in the form of emotions. Emotions are the signals your body feel when it senses a threat, real or imagined. You can’t control when they are felt, but you can control how you react to them, and how you allow them to affect you. When the mind senses a threat, it sends a signal to the body preparing it for fight or flight. Rapid heartbeat, nervous feeling, restlessness, shortness of breath, and having the urge to avoid things that trigger you are all experienced when the body is in a fight or flight state and the physical manifestation is felt.

How can you process fear and anxiety?

Emotions like fear calms down when they are fully and safely experienced in the body, when there isn't a fear of threat or danger. Deep breathing exercises, plus mindful and compassionate awareness of the mind of the body, can follow the sensation of fear in the body like trembling,until they release. This is a gradual process performed without judgment.

Anxiety needs to be calmed not only to feel better, but to deal with the underlying emotions such as fear. You can’t work through emotions when your body is experiencing symptoms of anxiety.

It can be helpful to find a quiet space to slow down first, feel your feet on the ground and take 6 or so deep belly breaths when working through anxiety. This not only sets the stage for processing emotions, but it also immediately begins to calm the anxiety. The next step is to ask yourself what is happening right in the moment that may or may not be causing the anxiety. If there is nothing happening in the moment to warrant the feeling or trigger, you may be experiencing anxiety.

Whether you are dealing with fear or anxiety, know that you have the power to move through for future wellbeing. Staying present with your body, and feeling the sensation of how your body feels is especially helpful to understand if you are responding to fear and anxiety.

Working with a therapist can also help you identify triggers of anxiety and fear so you can feel more in control and confident taking care of yourself to have better relationship with yourself and the people in your life. All in all, through healing fear and anxiety, you grown and learn to embrace different aspects of your life.

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