Author’s Note: I wish I had learned about the differences between fear and anxiety and stress years ago. I have spent most of my adult life lacking the vocabulary and self-awareness to be able to tell when I was experiencing which emotion. If you had asked me three years ago, I would have told you that anxiety was a stupid and useless emotion that inhibited action. Little did I know at the time, however, that almost every day of my life was colored by my continuous anticipation of things going wrong in the future, and my brainpower was consumed by perpetual planning to try to avoid those things going wrong–also known as anxiety.
Now I realize that my own negative perception of the word “anxiety” made it impossible for me to get a grip on it. You can’t handle something you can’t even acknowledge is there.
This post is for others like me who might not even be aware when they’re living with anxiety. It is also for others like me sitting in the face of a natural disaster and trying to handle it as best they can.
May we all be safe, and may we all find peace in the face of the storm.
Unless you’re a news-phobe like me, you’ve probably heard about the havoc Hurricane Harvey is currently raining down onto southeast Texas. For the first time ever, the National Weather Service issued a “Flash Flood Emergency for Catastrophic Life Threatening Flooding.” The situation in Houston is bad, folks.
When I called my mother in California the other day, she said, “Oh, baby, I can hear the stress in your voice,” which just made the stress morph into tears. In my experience, stress is the nicely-packaged, sterile word Americans like to substitute for the word anxiety. To be “under stress” connotes trying to handle external forces out of our control, while being “anxious about” something connotes an internal response that may or may not be appropriate to the situation. In our culture, describing yourself as “stressed” is okay, while describing yourself as “anxious” feels like too personal of an admission and makes other people uncomfortable.
To use the correct terminology, I’ve pretty much been living in a state of perpetual anxiety since I learned late last week that the edge of Harvey would be sweeping over Houston. Unlike those who grew up here, my formative experience with hurricanes came in the form of huddling in front of the TV after Hurricane Katrina, weeping and watching bodies float down the street as I threw money at the Red Cross. I don’t have any “real” perspective on what to expect when you’re expecting a hurricane… but based on how people were behaving as they elbowed me out of the way in the nuts and snacks aisle at the grocery store, it wasn’t going to be good.
Things get stressful when fear and anxiety are involved.
The Differences Between Stress and Fear and Anxiety
Despite popular use, stress is not actually an emotion. A stress–or stresser–is a physical, mental, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension. Stress is an external factor of life, not your own internal response to it.
Fear, on the other hand, is the emotional and physiological response activated by an immediate threat. If your house is literally flooding and you’re calling 911 while perched on the roof, you’re very rightfully afraid. Fear is an in-the-moment response that demands action for survival.
Anxiety, on the other other hand, is an emotional and physiological response activated by your thoughts about perceived threats in the future. If you’re feeling a negative emotion while binge-watching news in anticipation of an approaching storm, you’re feeling anxiety. If things get really bad, you might even have an anxiety or panic attack, which is basically your body in full fight-or-flight mode (as though you’re perched on the roof while your house is flooding) even though there is no immediate threat to which to respond.
Anxiety is a generalized response that might trick you into thinking it demands immediate action for survival.
One problem for people experiencing anxiety is that many of the physiological symptoms of fear and anxiety are the same (rapid breathing, increase in blood pressure / pulse, increased perspiration, digestive issues). In order to be able to identify the emotion you’re feeling, then, you need to tune in to what it is you’re responding to–is it something in the moment, or is it the possibility of something in the future?
What to Do About Anxiety
To deal with anxiety,
- Tune in to what it is you’re actually worrying about
- Imagine the most-likely worst-case scenario
- Do everything you can to prevent the most-likely worst-case scenario from occurring
- Acknowledge that there’s nothing else you can do and worrying about it any more isn’t productive
- Live in the moment and breath
Personally, once I figure out I’m feeling anxious or overwhelmed, I turn to the Serenity Prayer:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
Identify what you’re anxious about, do the best you can to address the stresser causing it, and work to let everything else go. Tune in to your immediate surroundings and force yourself to acknowledge that, at this exact moment, you’re okay, and worrying about the future isn’t going to help.
Imagine Only the Most-Likely Worst-Case Scenario
Once I identified myself as being anxious about Harvey (which took about .37 seconds haha), I did some most-likely worst-case-scenario imagining. What’s the worst thing that would personally happen to me if my area floods this week? I live on the third floor, so the most likely worst thing that would happen is that I could get trapped at home for some time without electricity and plumbing and my car is ruined. Neither of those things is life-ruining, especially if I have food, water, cat food, and kitty litter to last a couple of weeks.
The hard part about planning for the most-likely worst-case scenario is that your brain will automatically begin cataloging all of the worst-case scenarios possible. In my case, I immediately started thinking of the following:
- Something terrible could happen and I might need to drive somewhere in my little Civic and get trapped and DIE
- I could end up in standing water next to an electricity wire and get electrocuted and DIE
- I could get trapped at home and my phone could run out of power and I could be injured and not be able to call 911 and DIE
- Or, most terrifying of all, I could DIE by one of the options listed above and no one would even know or care for weeks until my body started to smell and the neighbors complained
This is where mindfulness comes in. It’s only by realizing you’re freaking out about something that isn’t that likely to occur that you can force yourself to stop. Focus on the MOST-LIKELY worst case scenarios, and plan for them and only them.
P.S. Post Script
Life is hard, and the future can be scary. Anxiety just makes life worse, and the future scarier. My wish for myself (and you) is a life free from anxiety so you have the mental capacity to live in the moment and handle difficult moments in a clear-headed way. Much love. – Lindsay