Fear is our emotional response to a real or perceived threat to our wellbeing. It is a normal and very important emotion that has helped us survive through the ages by identifying, predicting and avoiding danger.
Fear compels us to act, to seek safety, and to survive. The timeless example is the caveman ﬂeeing from the sabretooth tiger. A more contemporary example might be hurrying to the safety of your car after hearing footsteps behind you in an isolated, unlit street.
Anxiety is the worrying and anticipation of a potential threat. It is worrying about a future event that we think will be negative. It is our apprehension that we cannot cope with a situation.
Similar to our response to physical threat, we often ﬁnd ourselves taking action to feel safe and alleviate the anxiety borne from worrying. We call these actions ‘safety behaviours’. Safety behaviours can be either avoidant or approach.
With avoidant behaviours, we avoid, delay or escape our fear, such as avoiding going to a party because we are anxious about social situations or drinking alcohol to suppress distressing thoughts. This type of coping is very appealing because it provides an immediate decrease in anxiety.
With approach behaviours, we engage in the anxiety-provoking situation but use strategies to prevent or minimise the feared outcome – so we might go to the party but spend lots of time in the toilet or only talk to our best friend.
Safety behaviours are compelling because they have instant beneﬁts and usually reduce the feelings of danger and anxiety. This makes complete sense….in the short term! However in the long term, safety behaviours reinforce and intensify anxiety.
By not confronting anxiety, we continue to believe that there is danger that needs to be avoided at all costs. We continue to expect dire outcomes and do not discover that a lot of our fears do not come true or are not as catastrophic as we predicted. We continue to presume that we cannot cope. Finally, we do not learn that these distressing emotions will peak and abate of their own accord. For these reasons, the treatment of anxiety almost always involves addressing avoidance and gradually facing our fears.
Not so long ago I had an opportunity to practice what I preach! My fear of heights came to the fore on a recent holiday in Tokyo during a visit to the Sky Tree, the world’s tallest tower. The viewing platform on the 350th storey (no, that is not a misprint – 350 storeys!) had a glass ﬂoor that the daring could walk on to appreciate the towering height at which we all stood. I decided to confront my anxiety.
My ﬁrst attempt was to step onto the glass, eyes ﬁrmly on the wall, however my anxiety increased and I stepped off, not giving my anxiety time to subside. On my next attempt, I again stood on the glass and looked at the wall but this time I remained there until my anxiety and physical responses lessened and faded. Then I glanced down at the ground far, far below but looked away before my distress declined. I tried again, this time maintaining my gaze until again my fear abated.
What did I learn? That I did not plummet to my death as I feared, that I can cope with the distress of facing my fear and that those unpleasant feelings and emotions will pass if I can stick it out long enough.
Revive Health and Happiness has a team of psychologists who are all well experienced in dealing with stress and anxiety and have a variety of strategies to help and support you in managing stress that is getting out of control or of course, anything else that is troubling you or your loved ones. Contact our friendly team now to talk about how we can help.