Anxiety is a word that encompasses many feelings
What term you use to describe the feeling is typically determined by what you presume is the object of that feeling. After a flash fire on the stove, you’d say fear. An unexpected email from your boss asking for a brief Monday morning check-in might be worry. Anticipating an upcoming trip with your sister after a few tense text exchanges would perhaps be angst. When you’re unsure of the object but feel a general sense of all of the above, you tend to label that simply as anxiety.
Anxieties that persist are frequently formed by fear
What if the meeting with your boss goes great, your sister calls to clear the air, and you clean up the fire and get back to cooking, but you’re still anxious? Or you feel a sense of momentary relief, but a similar flood of anxiety comes with the next thing (and the next thing)? Anxiety can become a habit of sorts—a lingering presence that comes and goes, as well as varies in intensity. It can seem impermeable to shifting fortunes, leading to the question: What is behind the anxiety?
When you can’t find the object you’re anxious about, this is a good clue that anxiety is historical. This means there is an old event about which you have anxiety that has never been fully resolved, leading you to still feel that feeling. Most of the time the kind of anxiety that persists so enduringly—and often brings people into therapy—comes from past experiences of fear. Why? Because fear is particularly formative, meaning it shapes us significantly.
Fear is so formative because its signal is so intense
Fear most often inspires people to seek out therapy for the same reason it is a useful signal: it is, by its very nature, meant to compel action toward safety. When an alarm like a smoke detector goes off, for example, its function is to alert everyone in the building so they can investigate the cause and resolve the problem. Similar to the blaring noise of a smoke detector, the signal that communicates fear is by necessity quite significant. The signal is intense because the danger it declares is intense.
Like an alarm, when we feel afraid, we first try to identify the source of that fear in order to resolve it. When an alarm continues to go off, it’s reasonable to conclude that the problem hasn’t been resolved; the source hasn’t been found and needs further attention. Likewise, people who are afraid all the time but struggle to find the source have some idea that their fear isn’t grounded in the present reality of their lives. It’s a fear that’s not solvable by quitting a stressful job, leaving a bad relationship, or moving from an apartment in constant need of repairs. In fact, not knowing the source of the fear can sometimes make them feel even more afraid.
How do you treat fear when you can’t immediately locate the source?
When the cause of the fear can’t be located and addressed in present material reality, there are two options: treat the symptoms with medication or cognitive or behavioral interventions or lean into the fear-as-signal approach to discover the original source of the fear. Often, in this instance, the fear is in the past and the fear button got stuck in the down position on the emotional keyboard.
When we find the source, we must honor the scary experience (or experiences) and work through it in a manner that wasn’t possible when it first happened. We need to feel it, as well as recognize the ways we may have been helpless to it and powerful in the face of it. We need to make meaning, grieve, and share the pain and scariness with others. When we give this past experience the full attention it needs, it becomes not so overwhelmingly frightening anymore.
This process is parallel to the experiences children have. If a child wakes up in the middle of the night to a loud noise outside, understandably they may feel afraid. Their parents may pick them up, hug them, and turn the outside lights on to show them the raccoon, explaining the raccoon can’t get inside. By acknowledging what made them afraid and how they felt, they feel safer and better. With frightening events from the past that were not fully resolved, we need to make sense of what happened and learn from it to establish a new sense of safety. We need to credibly convince our nervous system that the issue is resolved and work has been done to heal in order to render the alarm no longer needed. If that process is incomplete, even if the fire has been put out, we remain on guard (and the more experiences we accumulate that we haven’t fully worked through, the more we remain scared).