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Archive for August 12th, 2011

On my blog entry entitled Choosing Not to React to Emotions, a reader posted a link to an article about the differences between fear and anxiety. I had never really thought about the differences and found this article to be fascinating. I think this article also explains why I have had negative associations toward anxiety (I always equated “anxious” with “weak” and had a difficult time applying that label to myself.)

According to the article, while people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) frequently struggle with anxiety, the anxiety is a byproduct of a “conditioned fear response,” which distinguishes PTSD from other anxiety disorders. The article argues that the two terms of “fear” and “anxiety” are not interchangeable because they have different causes:

The difference between fear and anxiety starts with the proximity of the threat. The individual in a state of fear perceives the threat to be real and immediate, demanding an active response. The anxious individual, on the other hand, does not perceive an immediate threat; he is focused on a potential threat that looms in the near or distant future. ~ How Fear Differs From Anxiety

The article points out that the person experiencing anxiety is in a state of distress, not fear. The anxious person doesn’t do much to solve the problem because the source of the fear is murky. However, the person who is experiencing fear “perceives the threat to be real and immediate, demanding an active response.”

The article then goes into the scientific explanation, which I hear as the teacher talking in a Charlie Brown cartoon. (My sister is the scientist of the family, not me.) Apparently fear happens in one part of the brain and conditions us at a primal level to react to a trigger as if we are currently in danger. If I am reading this correctly, we get hardwired to react to a trigger as if we are currently in danger, which is very different from feeling distress about something that could happen. We react as if the danger is happening.

More scientific blah, blah, blah stuff, but I think the article is saying that fear conditioning does not imprint the same way that regular learning and memory does. I wonder if this is the reptilian brain that Michael is always talking about?? Interestingly, the fear-state causes changes in the brain, including speech. I wonder if that is why I talk very fast when I am triggered??

This disruption of learning is thought to account for many of the symptoms of PTSD; there is no opportunity for the fearful experience to be processed and transformed into the declarative memory system. Instead, the changes in cellular activity are confined to subcortical structures. Encounters with somatosensory stimuli associated with the trauma continue to trigger the conditioned fear and the cascade of events starts anew, thereby interfering with the opportunity to “learn” (explicitly) that the conditioned stimulus is not a real threat. ~ How Fear Differs From Anxiety

You can read the full article here. It’s fascinating even if you don’t follow all of the science stuff. I’ll have to email the article to my sister and get her to dumb it down for me.

Photo credit: Hekatekris

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