By Cindy Picht, LPC, Director,
Light the Way Counseling Center
The other night, as I was walking into my house, the neighbor’s dog charged me. I darted inside and slammed the door, shaking. For the next few minutes, I had trouble calming down. My breathing was fast and my heart was beating faster. My muscles felt tight as I leaned against the closed door.
In that moment, I was experiencing fear.
Once I was inside and knew I was safe, I could breathe again. My heart was still racing but I could feel my body starting to relax and my breathing getting back to normal.
What is fear?
My first reaction to the dog charging me was fear. My breathing was shallow but fast, although I felt like it stopped. My hands felt a little cold and clammy. My eyes were bulging out of my head. My response was an automatic, physiological reaction. My brain automatically knew I was in danger and my body went into the flight, fight mode.
Fear is experienced when there is a real danger or threat. Our amygdala senses the threat, and we automatically react. This fear is good. If we are walking in the woods and see a crooked, thin, two-foot-long object in our path it’s good our brain warns us that it’s a snake and we step back. When we can think and realize it’s a stick, our bodies relax and we go on with our hike. Fear is useful when we smell smoke and rush to get out of the house. This reaction is all automatic, no thinking is involved.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is a little different than fear. We feel anxiety when there is an anticipated or perceived danger or threat.
Over the next few days, after the dog charged me, I could feel my body tensing up as I arrived home. My shoulders tightened, my stomach felt off, and my hands clutched the wheel. My eyes darted around to see if I could see the dog. Once I realized he wasn’t around I relaxed but kept thinking that he was out there and I couldn’t see him.
This is anxiety. Feeling uncomfortable and a sense of dread but there is not a real danger or threat. Anxiety occurs when we are worried about a sick loved one and when we are stressed about a looming deadline or a big exam that we aren’t ready for. We may feel anxious about an upcoming interview or making sales calls. Good news, it’s normal to feel some level of anxiety.
When Anxiety Becomes a Problem
Anxiety becomes a problem when it interferes with our normal functioning. If I become so anxious that I can’t leave my house, anxiety has interfered with my everyday life. It has become a problem. If we are too afraid to meet new people or attempt to go on that interview, anxiety has interfered with our life. When we are too scared to drive on a highway, anxiety has limited our everyday living.
Processing Fear and Anxiety for the Best Results
Knowing the difference between fear and anxiety helps us take the necessary action to overcome it, recover and move forward. Here are some tips to help.
1. Awareness is a good first step. Know the difference between fear and anxiety. If it’s anxiety, is it interfering with your everyday life? If yes, then action is needed.
2. Slow deep breaths and relaxation exercises can help calm the body so we can think clearer and face our challenges.
3. Pay attention to your thoughts. Write down the negative thoughts and then write down the opposite, positive thought.
4. Let close friends and family know what you are experiencing and ask them to help.
5. Think about positive action steps. If it’s making calls you don’t want to make, make them first thing in the morning. If it’s working on a project, work on the project first and then do other activities. There’s an old proverb that says, “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and the rest of the day won’t be so bad”. Do the thing you dread first thing in the morning.
6. Keep moving towards the thing you dread, or that’s causing you anxiety, rather than avoid it. Slice it down into small, actionable steps.
7. If you are worried about something in the future then make a plan and then let it go. If you can’t make a plan then focus on something else so you aren’t focused on the worry.
As mentioned, fear of real danger and threat and some anxiety is helpful to us. It can motivate us, get us moving in the right direction, even keep us alive. Too much anxiety, however, decreases our functioning and lessens our capacity to have a fulfilling day. If you feel that anxiety is hurting you, then try these tips to help decrease the anxiety.
I applied these tips after I was safe inside my house. I knew I was safe, and I could breathe again. I took a few slow deep breaths and I could feel my body starting to relax and my breathing getting back to normal. I was able to recover and enjoy the rest of my evening.
Cindy Picht is the director of Light the Way Counseling Center in Midland Park, NJ. Serving the local community since 2004, Light the Way offers a selection of services for individual counseling, couples counseling, marriage counseling, and much more. “We strive to provide our clients with the best service and care available at rates that are easily affordable. When you or a family member needs help with depression, eating disorders or anger in Midland Park, NJ, call on Light the Way Counseling Center, LLC.”