By Joseph Ledoux, New York Times, January 22, 2012
You are taking a walk in the woods ― pleasant, invigorating, the sun shining through the leaves. Suddenly, a rattlesnake appears at your feet. You experience something at that moment. You freeze, your heart rate shoots up and you begin to sweat ― a quick, automatic sequence of physical reactions. That reaction is fear.
Human anxiety is greatly amplified by our ability to imagine the future, and our place in it.
.A week later, you are taking the same walk again. Sunshine, pleasure, but no rattlesnake. Still, you are worried that you will encounter one. The experience of walking through the woods is fraught with worry. You are anxious.
This simple distinction between anxiety and fear is an important one in the task of defining and treating of anxiety disorders, which affect many millions of people and account for more visits to mental health professionals each year than any of the other broad categories of psychiatric disorders.
Scientists generally define fear as a negative emotional state triggered by the presence of a stimulus (the snake) that has the potential to cause harm, and anxiety as a negative emotional state in which the threat is not present but anticipated. We sometimes confuse the two: When someone says he is afraid he will fail an exam or get caught stealing or cheating, he should, by the definitions above, be saying he is anxious instead.
But the truth is, the line between fear and anxiety can get pretty thin and fuzzy. If you saw the abovementioned snake at a particular rock on the path of your walk, and are now at that spot, the rock may stand in for the snake and elicit fear, even though the snake itself is nowhere to be found. In modern life, many fear states are like this — they are brought on by things, signposts or signals that stand for harm rather than things that are truly harmful. After the Sept. 11 attacks, for instance, many New Yorkers felt uneasy at the sound of low flying airplanes.
How do things come to symbolize threats? Remember Pavlov’s dog? When the bell rang the dog salivated because the bell had previously been rung as the dog was being fed (actually, it wasn’t a bell, but no matter). The dog’s brain formed an association between the sound and the food, and the sound came to elicit salivation in preparation for the imminent food. As the snake and Sept. 11 examples above illustrate, the same thing happens in dangerous situations.
Language purists like to use the appropriate word to describe a situation. Those whose detailed attention to the choice of words is more casual, clearly the norm, generate confusion not only about the difference between fear and anxiety, but also about other equally different and separate categories of experience.
However, those language purists are considered "anal" by many of those in the "casual" category, and vocabulary is considered satisfactory if and when it conveys the general drift.
In the beginning was the word, and the word became flesh...a quote from scripture that has heavy freight in many of our human experiences two thousand years after the words were recorded. Many of the words we use actually become precursers to our experience. In other words, how we conceive, perceive an event to develop can play a significant role in how that specific event does actually unfold.
Failing to separate fear from anxiety, and then failing to confront our own history of both, in the current context, can only exacerbate both fear and anxiety, turning the latter into the former, without anything actually occurring.
We can slip and slide from anxiety into fear in the blink of an eye, and make the progression unconsciously.
It is only in bringing both the words and the pictures associated with those words to our consciousness that we begin to reduce the power of both fear and anxiety to levels that we can accommodate.
And, only if and when we begin to confront a culture that denigrates both the experience of anxiety and of fear as "for wimps only" will both men and women begin to interact on something more akin to a level playing field. And that would be a gift for both genders, and a significant loss of revenue and need for pharmaceutical companies and their products.