Let’s make some distinction among the various threats that seem hell-bent on our destruction. Without getting into fine-grained science it will serve us to define fear as a response to a very real and present danger. Hot stoves, hungry tigers, high-voltage wires, all fall into the “Oh crap! That bus is about to hit me!” kind of scared and they’re just smart and downright useful survival instincts.
In these situations our responses are always instantaneous and action-oriented. We’re all familiar with the “fight-or-flight” response to a threat. Both of these options involve decisive and immediate action. If the house in on fire, we grab the kids and get out. If the ship is sinking, we make for the lifeboats. If the bully is heading our way in the playground, we run the other way or stand up and punch him in the nose.
‘Fear,’ ‘anxiety’ and ‘worry’ surface when we figure something bad is going to happen and they can be thought of as different intensities of the same emotion. In other words, they’re all the same thing, just with the dial turned up or down.
Any time your mind perceives that an event is approaching that could end badly for you, one intensity or another of this set of emotions is triggered. In every case, though, the ‘event’ is something you’re imagining that might or might not happen at some future time.
None of these events has actually happened. They’re all some distance off in the future. The closer in time the fear-inducing event is, the more we’ll respond in that fight-or-flight, immediate and decisive action mode. In fact, when it comes to the fear spectrum, there’s something perversely satisfying about a real emergency: it arises, we respond, and it’s over. The muscles relax, the adrenaline dissipates and we clean up the mess.
A vague, or far-off event, though, can trigger that low-grade, chronic anxiety that drains our energy because, while we find ourselves fretting in anticipation of the negative outcome, there seems to be little or nothing we can do about it right now.
You’ve likely heard the acronym that defines FEAR as Fantasized Experiences Appearing Real. Absolutely anything that evokes fear, anxiety or worry is going to, or is imagined as going to take place in the future. If it’s already happened, you’re not afraid anymore. You might be angry, injured, broke or even dead but you aren’t anxious or afraid anymore.
The point of the acronym, however, is that a future event isn’t actually real. Right now it exists solely in your imagination. And a great many of the future events over which we agonize never actually come to pass. As the 16th-century philosopher Michel de Montaigne, observed, “My life has been full of terrible misfortunes most of which never happened.”
We writhe in mental agony over the diagnosis we’re convinced we will get, the lover we’re sure is having an affair, the exam we’re terrified we’ll fail or the nut-job with a gun we’re sure is walking through the mall, yet these events virtually never materialize.
Even though these ‘events’ exist purely in our imagined future, we’ve taught ourselves to fear them as if they were both very real and very immediate. Perhaps it’s time we unlearned that lesson.