The relationship between anxiety, fear, and worry | CFS

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By Karen Fischer, M.S., Ed., LPC, BC-TMH, Director of Professional Development and Education, Christian Family Solutions Counseling Care & Services

The word “anxiety” is used often in conversation today. Many people are dealing with some sort of anxiety. Even if your situation has not reached the clinical definition for anxiety, the term bounces around a lot as we discuss life situations with others.

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA). Anxiety impacts 19.1 percent of the adult population every year. That’s a pre-pandemic statistic. The prevalence increased about 25 percent since the pandemic, according to the World Health Organization. Women and adolescents are the most likely to experience anxiety.

Let’s clear up a few things about anxiety, and provide some resources for those who deal with it –themselves or in others.

First, it’s important to know that clinical anxiety is not an emotion. It is a condition.

The emotion related to anxiety is fear. And what we do with that emotion produces a number of things, one of which could be anxiety.

Worry is the action related to fear. It’s a thought process that says, “I’m going to take that fear and think about it.”

What is going to happen to me?
What am I going to do about it?
How can I work this out?”

These thoughts are being dictated by the fear. If we allow those thoughts to get even bigger, and we start generalizing them, then we get anxiety. For example:

A little girl and her older brother are sitting in your kitchen. The brother says, “Don’t go outside because there is a bear in our woods.”

Fear might pop up for the little girl, which is a natural reaction in that situation. Worry would be thinking about the possibility of a bear in the woods over and over again, thinking through what she would do if she met the bear when she goes outside, and the various possible outcomes.

Taking it a step further, the little girl might allow her fears to grow.

There must be bears in every woods, and I should never go in a woods.

That’s clinical anxiety.

 

What to do with fear

It’s OK to tend to fears when they arise. Fear is supposed to be there and God created it to help you be mindful and safe. Your brain is designed to look forward and backward and provide you with that information in hopes that it informs the now. While your brain may be doing its job, it is not always doing you a favor in this. You can choose to attend to the thoughts your brain is providing, or to put aside those thoughts. Be careful not to let fear run too far. Generalizing the fear to all situations – like every woods, or every time I go outside – is allowing the fear to go too far.

There are things we can do to address our emotions – like fear – and prevent them from growing into anxiety.

1. Question whether your fear is reasonable. Discern which are normal, reasonable fears you should attend to, and which ones are starting to dominate your thoughts. Be sure to note that fears can seem reasonable. It is understandable to be afraid of bears, but it is not reasonable to be afraid of bears in your home or in woods where bears do not live. Fear is only reasonable if your life or well-being are at actual risk.

 

2. Recognize what unchecked fear does to your body.

  • Physical Symptoms: Headaches, stomachaches, rapid heartbeat, tension in your muscles, shortness of breath, etc.
  • Emotional Symptoms: Irritability, impatience, mood swings, etc.
  • Behavioral Symptoms: Becoming withdrawn, losing your temper, restlessness, over-sleeping, avoidance etc.

 

3. Use and practice skills that reduce those symptoms in the moment: Mindfulness exercises help you take control of your thoughts, either ahead of a situation or when you’re in the middle of a fear-inducing situation.

For example, let’s say you were in a fender-bender recently and now you have a fear of driving. You’re worried and you’ve let those thoughts run in your mind. Mindfulness can keep those worried thoughts in check. In this situation, mindfulness might take on the form of a mental narration such as:

My hands are at 10 and 2.
The radio is on softly in the background.
There is a red car in front of me and I’m following at a safe distance.

These thoughts about the present situation are filling your mind with things that are actually happening now, rather than letting your mind worry about what is not happening or what has happened in the past.

 

4. Slow down and take care of yourself. We know that God created us body, mind, and spirit, and these are all connected. Taking care of ourselves helps prevent anxiety. For example:

  • Get enough sleep
  • Ensure proper nutrition
  • Exercise
  • Stretch
  • Read a book
  • Call someone you love
  • Make devotion and prayer a regular part of your routine. Repeat passages that bring you calm, such as:

 

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. -John 14:27

Cast your cares on the Lord and he will sustain you; he will never let the righteous be shaken. -Psalm 55:22

So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. -Isaiah 41:10

 

Anxiety is Not Running Rampant

As much as the world is talking about anxiety right now, it does not dominate for all human beings everywhere. (That would be an unrealistic generalization.) There are reasons for optimism. We human beings have capacity to prevent anxiety from overcoming us.

  • More than 50 years of research indicates that distress symptoms are common during disasters. Many people cope well and do not develop mental health disorders.
  • Some people thrived during the pandemic – got more sleep, more time with family, less academic stress or bullying, more flexible schedules.
  • In addition to developing positive coping skills for themselves, people with a faith tradition have a source of strength outside themselves that supports mental health.1, 2 That support comes from what we know about our God, which overcomes what we think or feel (1 John 3:19-20)

 

The skills mentioned here, when coupled with prayer and devoted time in God’s Word, equip the individual to overcome the challenges of anxiety. Remember, if anxiety escalates beyond what you can handle on your own, reach out for help. God provides pastors and clinicians who can help you gain control of your thoughts, keeping anxiety at bay.

 

If you (or someone you know) needs counseling services, please contact Christian Family Solutions at 800-438-1772. Request an appointment here.

 

CONSIDER THESE ADDITIONAL RESOURCES ABOUT ANXIETY

Karen Fischer, LPC, talks with Pastor Bill Limmer about the relationship between Fear, Worry, and Anxiety: [VIDEO]

Time of Grace ministry has provided a series on depression and anxiety: [VIEW THE SERIES]

Whatever is True: A Christian’s View of Anxiety available from Northwestern Publishing House [VIEW THE BOOK]

A toolkit for helping children with anxiety from Christian Family Solutions: [VIEW THE TOOLKIT]

1Koenig H. G., 2012, Religion, spirituality, and health: the research and clinical implications. ISRN psychiatry, 2012, 278730. https://doi.org/10.5402/2012/278730

2VanderWeele, T.J. Religion and health: a synthesis. (2017) In: Peteet, J.R. and Balboni, M.J. (eds.). Spirituality and Religion within the Culture of Medicine: From Evidence to Practice. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

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