According to the National Institute of Mental Health, during their lifetimes approximately 50 million American adults who are 18 and older are diagnosed with anxiety disorder. In a given year, about 20 percent of people in this age group receive the diagnosis. Anxiety is called the epidemic of the 21st century. Fear and anxiety are basic feelings that are perceived as unpleasant sensations arising inside of us that cause us to believe we are in some kind of danger. Your heart beats faster, breath shortens, muscles tighten, hair can stand up, hands sweat, and your whole body can start shaking. The reaction to this anxiety can range from an apprehension to a full-blown panic attack. Fear and anxiety can appear very suddenly and overwhelmingly, as if these emotions are done to us, which makes us feel powerless and out of control. You may have a perfectly peaceful moment and all of the sudden you notice that you left your wallet in the cab. The anxiety hits when you start thinking about all the bad consequences this may have for you. Or one week before your big presentation at work, the unsettling current of anxiety in you seems to noticeably increase. Or you wake up in the morning and the fear and anxiety may immediately show up, ready to take control of the day. However, although fear can appear as an uncontrollable energy that exists within us, it is simply a feeling that we create. Understanding some important facts about fear and anxiety is the first step to demystify this emotion and regain control—the more we know about something, the more we can find ways to deal with it.
Fear is a basic feeling and therefore created by us – it is not something we have, but something we do. The purpose of fear is to keep us safe.
There are only two fears we are born with, the fear of falling and the fear of starvation/abandonment. All other fears are learned through our own or others’ experiences. A feeling is a form of communication from the subconscious part of our mind, which is eventually registered by the conscious mind. As with all feelings, fear and anxiety are information for us to pay attention to. The more uncomfortable the sensation, the more closely and immediately our subconscious mind wants us to pay attention. Pain is a great example of needing to pay attention to information from our bodies.
The elaborate system of our brain and nervous system is designed to register fear and anxiety and consequently make us respond to it. The resourceful and adaptive side of fear is that it enables us to notice and anticipate danger, and then take precautions or appropriately address the situation. Daily, our relatives from the stone age faced life-threatening situations, such as encountering tigers, bears, and other predators, where fear helped them stay safe despite being physically inferior. So it makes complete sense that our ability to create fear to ensure the survival of our species has been preserved during evolution. Research even suggests that the fear of snakes and spiders is rooted in early evolution.
A low-grade, short lasting fear can keep us on our toes and prevent us from putting ourselves into situations that could potentially hurt us. More intense fear can help us to be fully alert and physiologically mobilize additional energy and resources that can be utilized to fight or run away from the danger. However, do we really need fear on a daily basis to stay safe? Let’s say you burn yourself on a hot stove. Do you need to hold on to the pain to realize that you should not touch a hot stove again? Do we need the fear of losing our job to make us go to work and perform every day? Is it the fear of getting hit by a car that stops us from walking across a busy highway? Or is it experience and common sense that most commonly keep us safe? Fear can also immobilize us, which then leads to the “deer in the headlight effect,” where we just feel paralyzed, unable to make a decision or even physically move. While the fear may be an effective way to alert us, when it escalates and grows into a panic, it can have devastating consequences.
Fear and anxiety is the internal interpretation of external and internal stimuli. Fear gets triggered by something we see, hear, smell, taste, feel, or say to ourselves. You walk at night in a dark alley, wondering whether the stranger who walks quietly behind you, wants to mug you? These thoughts, interpretations of reality, cause you to feel anxious— – take action. You walk faster, trying to get away from the dark alley. A short time later you realize that the person behind you was a young woman, who was probably as scared as you were. In hindsight, the anxiety was completely unfounded and based on your imagination. So was it worth it? You certainly can argue that in this case fear and anxiety was appropriate, prompting us you to take action to deal with a potentially dangerous situation. But how do you decide if a situation is truly dangerous? Are we responding to fantasy and “what ifs” or do we avoid real threats? And how can well tell the difference— – and stay safe?
How often have we created an anxiety-evoking scenario by filtering information from the outside and creating a “reality”-based story on information filtered through our own screen? It is estimated that we are receiving two million bits of information per second, which is vastly more than our mind can deal with. In fact we are only able to consciously compute seven bits of information per second. So to make sense of the world, a large amount of information needs to be filtered out. This is the job of our subconscious mind, which uses filters that distort, generalize, and delete information. These subconscious filters consist of memories of past experiences, unresolved emotions, values, and beliefs. Since we are often not consciously aware of the filters, we are unaware that our “reality” is an extremely condensed version of all the information that is surrounding us. Depending on your filters, we are more or less likely to interpret “reality” as something dangerous or safe. For example, the more anxiety and stress we have stored in the subconscious mind, the easier these emotions will be triggered. Or if one of our core beliefs is that we are not safe, we will subconsciously look for evidence that confirms this belief.
Therefore, to overcome fear and anxiety, we need to work with the subconscious mind to change the filters that make us more prone to experience these emotions.