Here’s an obvious statement: we are living in extraordinarily stressful times. Many of us and our family members are feeling threatened, anxious, worried, fearful, perhaps panicky and even terrified. Anyone who has a significant trauma history can be more prone to extremes of any of these.
As we all navigate these highly stressful times and try to help our loved ones, friends and colleagues cope, it might be helpful to appreciate that there are some significant differences among the concepts of threat, anxiety, worry, fear, panic and terror many of us are experiencing. Understanding these differences can help us better assess what’s going on for ourselves and others. It can also help us use our abilities to be logical and mindful and to reduce some of the intensity of whatever we are currently experiencing.
Feeling Threatened. When a person feels threatened, they perceive there is some degree of impending or actual danger that requires fight, flee, freeze, submit or capitulation. Typically, it leads to a whole progression of neurological responses that are connected with stored memories and accompanying beliefs, flashbacks, triggers, thoughts, associations, interpretations and behaviors. This progression carries with it the corresponding release of neurotransmitters and hormones into the system that creates their own set of reactions and sensations. Depending on whether or not the threat response is compounded by PTSD determines its strength and length of the response.
We can feel very threatened in these uncertain times, perceiving that there is danger around us that might eventually require us to fight, flee, freeze, submit or capitulate in order to survive. You might be easily triggered by external stimulation such as watching the news or listening to intense podcasts, by reading things on Facebook and other social media. Anything that deeply compromises one’s feeling of safety can be considered threatening.
Feeling Anxious. In his book The Gift of Fear, Gavin de Becker discusses anxiety. He states: “It is caused, ultimately, by predictions in which you have little confidence. When you predict that you will be fired from your job and you are certain that prediction is correct, you don’t have anxiety about being fired. You might have anxiety about the things you can’t predict with certainty, such as the ramifications of losing the job. Predictions in which you have high confidence frees you to respond, adjust, feel sadness, accept, prepare, or do whatever is needed. Accordingly, anxiety is reduced by improving your predictions, thus increasing your certainty.”
It is pretty easy to see how many of us are experiencing anxiety these days, especially because we can’t predict with certainty what’s going be happening
Worrying. “Worry,” states de Becker, “is the fear we manufacture—it is not authentic.” He suggests that worry does not bring solutions and often detracts from finding them. He calls it a form of self-harassment. He also says that worry can provide some kind of secondary reward, used as a tool to magically ward off danger. The belief can be that worrying about something will somehow stop it from happening.”
Worry is a way to avoid change; when we worry, we don’t do anything about the matter.
Worry is a way to avoid admitting powerlessness over something, since worry feels like we are doing something.
Worry is a cloying way to have connection with others, the idea being that to worry about someone shows love. The other side of this is the belief that not worrying about someone means you don’t care about them. Worry is a poor substitute for love or for taking loving action.
Worry is a protection against future disappointment. After taking an important test, for example, a student might worry about whether he failed. If he can feel the experience of failure now, rehearse it, so to speak, by worrying about it, then failing won’t feel as bad when it happens. But there’s an interesting trade-off: since he can’t do anything about it after he took the test, is it better to spend two days worrying and then learn he failed, or spend the same two days not worrying, and then learn he failed? Perhaps most importantly, we want to learn he had passed the test and spent two days of anxiety for nothing?
De Becker uses an analogy between real fear and worry and the relationship between pain and suffering. He says that pain and fear are necessary and valuable components of life while suffering and worry are destructive and unnecessary. He believes that worry hurts people much more than it helps because it interrupts clear thinking, wastes time and shortens life. He encourages people not to manufacture fear and if they feel they are worrying, to explore the worry in order to find out what is under it.
It is worth noting that children and adults who have experienced a significant trauma or chronic or complex trauma are often in a heightened arousal state because their sense of safety and control has been severely damaged. They need to be on a state of high alert, awaiting the next traumatic episode. These children and adults are more likely to experience greater degrees of worry and anxiety. Anyone helping a child or adult who struggles not only with issues of fear, but also issues around anxiety, worry and panic needs a level of sensitivity with regard to the reasons these fear states exist.
In these times of a pandemic, many people worry about how they are going to cope, survive, deal with new challenges, manage their own mental and physical health and the health of their loved ones. In some ways we might be rehearsing in order to prepare for what we are worrying about. I believe de Becker would want us to focus on reducing our worrying because it can be so destructive and basically is a waste of time. When we catch ourselves making all kinds of dire predictions about what’s happening in this time of the pandemic, we are worrying and that worrying increases our stress and is harmful to our bodies and our minds. We will continue to understand more about fear management in my next blog post.
Diane Wagenhals, Program Director, Lakeside Global Institute