Some theorists consider joy, sadness, disgust, anger, and fear to be the five “primary” emotions. Although they can sometimes feel overwhelming or confusing, our emotions convey important messages and can motivate us to change. For example, anger oftentimes indicates that something or someone has been violated or threatened, whereas sadness indicates loss or separation. To learn more about persistent sadness, which can turn into depression, please see my article on Understanding Depression and Seeking Treatment. This present article discusses the emotions of fear and anxiety, which can develop into what mental health professionals refer to as Anxiety Disorders.
Understanding Anxiety and Fear
As Steimer (2002) notes, some theorists believe that fear and anxiety are synonymous, while others distinguish between fear as apprehension about a known danger, and anxiety as apprehension about an unknown or speculative danger. Typically, fear and anxiety convey the message that something is not as it should be. In the face of the unknown, or what is a perceived as a threat, we often feel anxious, helpless, or scared, and this motivates us to seek control, security, or safety. In their most adaptive states, fear and anxiety propel us toward productive change. However, when fear and anxiety cause significant distress or impairment, these emotions can be problematic. Take, for example, a woman named, Ann, who is afraid of public speaking. Ann is a hardworking employee and has recently been promoted. One of her new responsibilities is to facilitate meetings and lead trainings for her department. But her fear of public speaking is making it difficult for her to assume these new responsibilities. While she is comfortable talking casually with her colleagues, she feels extremely uncomfortable with public speaking and she has avoided it as much as possible throughout her career. Ann fears her colleagues’ judgment and is afraid of being perceived as incompetent. When she has attempted to engage in public speaking in the past, she has found herself anxious, short of breath, and nauseous. In order to manage her anxiety, Ann avoids public speaking as much as possible, delegating it to those under her supervision. However, she knows that if she is to continue advancing in her career, she must conquer her fear of public speaking. While avoidance keeps Ann’s anxiety temporarily at bay, the more she avoids public speaking, the stronger her fear of public speaking becomes.
It is likely that Ann has Social Anxiety Disorder, which is just one of several anxiety disorders. As previously mentioned, fear and anxiety can be adaptive emotions, but when they are experienced persistently and in excess, they may become problematic. Others examples of anxiety disorders include, but are not limited to, Panic Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and Specific Phobias. In general, anxiety disorders are characterized by fear or anxiety that is either significantly distressing or impairing. Panic Disorder is characterized by panic attacks and worries about having panic attacks. Generalized Anxiety Disorder is characterized by excessive anxiety and worry about various aspects of life (e.g., relationships, work, school, current events). Specific Phobias are fears or anxiety about particular objects or situations.
Symptoms of Anxiety Disorders
When your anxiety or fears cause significant distress, or prevent you from taking care of yourself or operating well in your workplace, school, home, or in relationships, then you may be experiencing an anxiety disorder. Each person is different and therefore anxiety and fear can be triggered in different ways and manifest themselves differently in each individual. However, there are symptoms that are characteristic of anxiety disorders, which include the following:
- Significant feelings of anxiety or fear
- Worrying excessively about a variety of issues
- Having difficulty controlling worry
- Racing thoughts
- Panic attacks
- Muscle tension
- Feeling irritable, agitated, or on-edge
- Insomnia (not sleeping enough), difficulty falling asleep, or sleep that does not feel restful
- Fatigue, loss of energy, or feeling tired easily
How Do People Deal with Anxiety?
There is no single identifiable cause for all anxiety disorders. However, research has found that factors such as temperament, environmental stress, and genetics may increase the risk of developing particular anxiety disorders (APA, 2013). Each anxiety disorder is different and may be influenced by a different combination of risk factors.
Common strategies for managing anxiety or fear among people with anxiety disorders include worrying and/or avoiding whatever it is that is triggering these emotions. Although worrying may cause distress, it may provide a sense of perceived control and thus temporarily lower feelings of anxiety. However, there are some potential downsides to worrying, such as difficulty in concentrating, relaxing, and/or sleeping. Similarly, avoidance of whatever is anxiety-producing or feared can help to placate anxiety or fear temporarily, but it simultaneously increases the strength of the anxiety or fear. So, while worrying and avoidance are solutions for temporarily managing anxiety or fear, they pose some difficulties. Thankfully, there are other solutions for the treatment of anxiety disorders.
Treatment for Anxiety Disorders
Anxiety disorders can be treated with psychotherapy and/or the use of psychiatric medication. Medication can help reduce levels of anxiety or fear, and psychotherapy can help individuals to identify the triggers for their anxiety or fear and to develop coping skills to manage those emotions better. Medication is provided by medical professionals (e.g., primary care physicians, psychiatrists) and psychotherapy is provided by mental health professionals.
Christian Counseling for Anxiety Disorders
Emotions such as anxiety and fear are useful and important, but sometimes these emotions can cause excessive distress or problems in various domains of life. I believe that God has created humans to not only survive, but also thrive. Overwhelming fear or anxiety can leave us feeling as if we are fighting for survival instead of thriving. As a Christian mental health professional, my goal is to help you work towards a life of thriving. If your anxiety or fears are making it difficult for you to really engage in the plans that God has for you, seek help from a Christian counselor who is trained in providing psychotherapy.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author Steimer, T. (2002). The biology of fear- and anxiety-related behaviors. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 4(3), 231–249.
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