Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Anxiety or Fear?

"I define anxiety as the apprehension cued off by a threat to some value which the individual holds essential to his existence as a self." ~ Rollo May (Psychology & The Human Dilemma, 1996, p. 72)
    
     Who would have thought that amongst the dust bunnies and forgotten Army men there existed a demonic force that no one would dare challenge. At least, no one under the age of 5. It would disappear when adults looked for it. Later, a movie with Fred Savage taught me that they really just turned into clothes, but I was unaware these powers existed at the time. The emotion was palatable in the darkness of night and, if I listened closely, the sound of breathing would be the only thing to comfort me. Once, it sent a minion out and as it scurried across my floor I screamed. Not ashamed to admit it, I screamed like a little girl. Father came rushing in, scanned the room, looked at me, and asked what happened. My mind rushed to create a logical explanation, otherwise the existence of the minion may be completely in question. What, in the real world, is black and scurries soundlessly across the floor and is about the size of a coffee mug? There’s only one obvious answer and you’ve probably beat me to it: Tarantula.
      I explained to my father that a giant tarantula had scurried across my floor. He looked at me, and managed to hold it together for a good thirty seconds before his expression of concern cracked and became laughter. He explained that it was "probably" just a mouse and he would buy some traps the next day. Fine by me. Mouse traps would probably work on giant tarantula’s, right? Of course!
      So, here’s the question: What was 5 year old me feeling? To whit; is there a difference between anxiety and fear? In The Courage to Be, a book often referenced by May, Paul Tillich draws clear, and perhaps arbitrary, distinctions between multiple forms of anxiety. However, one thing they both agree on is this: Anxiety is the fear of "no thing". Kierkegaard calls it, "the dizziness of freedom" (i.e., potential). For me, that is distinction between fear and anxiety. Fear has a clear and distinct source: A lion about to pounce, a car swerving into my lane, emotional distance of a spouse. To quote Tillich, "Fear and anxiety are distinguished but not separated. They are immanent within each other: The sting of fear is anxiety, and anxiety strives toward fear."
     The concept that "anxiety strives towards fear" is crucial. As a 5 year old lay in his bed, imagining monsters waiting to destroy him, a mouse running across the floor was the object upon which I projected my anxiety. Today, I’m trying to learn how to sit with my anxiety, but I doubt I’ll ever master that ability. People aren’t designed to exist in a nearly constant state of anxiety. If you don’t believe me, get some history on your neurotic friends; you’re going to find a great deal of anxiety. I always want to know why I’m feeling anxious, not simply that I’m feeling anxious. However, I have gotten better at realizing when my anger is misplaced fear/anxiety and it helps me realign my priorities and consider my actions in a new context.
    In other words, there have been times where my wife, my friends, my coworkers were just mice going along their way when I projected the fear of under-the-bed-monsters onto them. Then, trying to make sense of my irrational fears made real, I tried to think of a logical way to explain my anger with them: they must be tarantulas (things that I know exist and/or have seen/experienced in the past). However, understanding what I have projected onto others, my own transference and countertransference is a crucial step in being able to begin to know if how I perceive other people is more or less accurate. In other words, are my feelings for the other person based more on our interactions or on my presuppositions and projections? If the former is the case, then I can begin developing a genuine and authentic relationship. If it is the latter, then I am in a relationship with myself more than the other and most attempts to work on difficulties in the relationship will be for naught because the difficulties may lie more in myself than the other.
     What do you think? Are the terms "anxiety" and "fear" merely synonyms or are there real, meaningful differences?
(C) Nathan D. Croy, 2013

3 comments:

  1. To me, it seems fear is the emotion and anxiety is our own response to that emotion. You fear speaking in front of a large group of people so you experience anxiety before going on stage as physical and mental manifestations of that emotion.

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    1. Then, anxiety is what's felt when there is the potential for fear?

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  2. Sort of, I think anxiety is caused by fear. In my previous example, the fear of going on stake would cause you to have butterflies in your stomach, or maybe start to sweat more. I would consider the butterflies and sweat to be anxiety CAUSED by your fear of speaking in front of a large group.

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