Much has been written in both academic and popular sources about fear and its origins. Through millions of years of evolution during times that were very much more dangerous than our modern world, we developed a strong sense of fear that kept us safe from all manner of potential harms. Consider the classic example of a tiger in tall jungle grass. You don’t know for sure that a tiger is there, but because the grass so greatly impairs visibility, by the time you become aware of a tiger’s presence, it would likely be too late to save your own life. You know all of this instinctually and, therefore, you experience fear that tells you that you probably shouldn’t walk through the grass at all.
Fear is a very good thing for that reason: it keeps us safe. Considering the modern world, I experience mild fear of heights, so things like standing at the top of skyscrapers make me a bit uneasy. But really, this doesn’t cause much of an effect on my life to speak of and it’s a perfectly valid fear knowing that a fall from that height would certainly kill me, so I’m okay with this fear. It is persistent in the sense that I would be somewhat uneasy as long as I stood at the top of skyscraper and this would happen every time I went up if it became necessary for me to make return trips for a job or something.
I contrast this type of “good” fear with another type of “good” fear that happens when, all of a sudden, we find ourselves in danger. For example, you’re crossing the street on the crosswalk and a car is coming and it looks like they’re not slowing down. You experience a rush of fear that alerts you to the danger and activates the fight or flight response. But then, the driver of the car slams on the brakes and the crisis is averted. Just as quickly as the fear arrived, it vanishes; fear may be replaced by other emotions, in this event, but the fear itself is now gone. This good type of fear is not persistent. Maybe for someone else, fear of crossing the street is a persistent fear, but for me, I only experience fear in the very rare event that I think I could get hit by traffic, and when the danger passes, so does the fear.
Bad Fear: Anxiety
So we can describe some fear as being good, but when does fear become bad? Well, keep in mind that the purpose of fear is to bring something to your attention so you can do something about it. If you experience fear about an upcoming science test in school, for example, you may determine that the proper response is to study for the test so you will be successful. Fear has done its job alerting you to a possible hazard, but what if you keep feeling fear? What if your mind is racing, stuck on ruminations of what could go wrong? This would be anxiety. All people experience anxiety sometimes to varying degrees and it is nothing to be ashamed of. With that said, it’s important to note that anxiety is not helpful the way that fear can be.
First, fear delivers a message. Then, you make any necessary decisions and take action. Often at this point, the rest is out of your control. If you continue feeling fear at this point, you can go ahead and call it anxiety. While there are many tricks to lessen anxiety (which I’m sure I will write about in the future), it is very helpful for me when I am experiencing anxiety to start by reminding myself that the initial fear was completely valid and I appreciate the alert. I then remind myself that I have taken what action I can to prevent the feared outcome.
So there you have it. Fear is helpful. You can best react to stimuli because of fear. And once you have done what you can, remind yourself of that fact and keep reminding yourself of that as often as your mind anxiously returns to the event.
(It should be noted that these suggestions are not intended for anyone suffering from an anxiety disorder and should not be considered medical advice by anyone. If you’re struggling with anxiety, you should seek proper help from a mental health professional.)