The words anxiety and fear are often used interchangeably to express the same feeling of dread that something terrible is going to happen momentarily or sometime in the future. Anxiety and fear are obviously similar but also quite different. The difference is that fear refers to an actual, realistic, objectively verifiable danger, whereas anxiety refers to a more subjective, unrealistic and often exaggerated fear response to something or someone that is not actually frightening. Anxiety refers to the feeling of fear for no apparent or logical reason.

Feeling frightened brings our attention to some danger or situation that can potentially harm us. This can be a good thing since it enables us to take the necessary steps to protect ourselves before the danger causes us harm. In fact we have the fear response built into our bodies. We don’t have to learn to be afraid in most circumstances that present a real, tangible danger to our well being.

Fear is felt in a number of ways. In our bodies we can feel muscle tension, difficulty breathing, sweating, nausea, and heart palpitations. Our thoughts tell us that something terrible is going to happen, either very soon or in the future. Driving on a slippery road, hearing strange noises, becoming lost especially at night, seeing someone who looks like they are about to attack us in some way, are just a few examples of the many circumstances that are frightening.

Anxiety is a similar feeling as fear, but is different in that there is no real danger or situation that can be harmful. Yet, if our bodies react with fear and we believe that we are in danger – even when there is no danger – then its called anxiety. Some people know that there is no actual danger but still can’t stop the feelings of fear and the thoughts of some catastrophe that is about to happen. Other people can’t tell the difference between a real danger and a feeling of fear when there is nothing to be afraid of. Examples of anxiety include intense fear of elevators, fear of driving over bridges, checking again and again to make sure a door is locked, and a fear that a person has a very serious disease. Of course there are many other fears that people have that are not really actual threats, but these are just a few examples.

There are some people who seem to be fearful of everything, whether it is realistic or not. For other people it seems like they are not afraid of anything.
These people have a spirit of adventure, take risks easily and sometimes even look for danger. Actually most people are somewhere in between these two extremes. The explanation for this difference is in the personalities of people. Fearful people are just very cautious, get scared easily, and are reluctant to take risks.

So why are people fearful when they don’t have to be? Why do they have anxiety when there is nothing to be afraid of? The answers to these questions can be found primarily in a person’s personal history, It also is based on an important difference between fear and anxiety. While the fear response in people is natural and is built into their bodies, the anxiety response – when there is no danger – is learned. When was it learned? How was it learned? Who was their main teacher? These questions are not easy to answer, and even if they could be answered it doesn’t get rid of the anxiety.

The reason anxiety is not easy to overcome is because it is maintained by a person avoiding the situation that brings out the anxiety. For example, if a person is terrified at the thought of getting into an elevator, the usual way it is handled is to walk up the stairs, and avoid the elevator altogether. This relieves the anxiety for the moment but unfortunately makes it more likely that anxiety will occur the next time there is an elevator to use. Another example is a person terrified of meeting other people for fear of being judged or criticized (social anxiety). The usual way of dealing with this anxiety is to avoid being with people, which relieves the anxiety for the moment but also makes it more likely that anxiety will occur the next time there is a social situation to attend. So avoiding the fearful situation makes a person feel better in the immediate present but feel worse in the future.

It is obvious that if there is a real danger then it is best to avoid the dangerous situation. For example, if a road is very slippery it is best to avoid driving on it. In this case the avoidance reduces both the fear and the chances of becoming seriously injured. With elevators and social situations however, the circumstances are different. Elevators or people themselves are not dangerous, nor are so many other things that make people anxious. Avoiding the elevator or the group of people reduces the fear temporarily, but does nothing to avoid injury. The problem is that the more a person avoids situations that cause anxiety, the harder it is to actually eliminate the anxiety. Sooner or later someone who wants to get rid of their anxiety will have to confront the fearful situation rather than avoiding it. By doing so it will become clear that no harm will occur and, therefore, there is no need to be afraid of it and to avoid it. In the examples just given, the more a person gets into an elevator, or associates with other people, the less the anxiety will occur until it goes away completely.

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