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.
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.
Human anxiety is greatly amplified by our ability to imagine the future, and our place in it.
What is the difference between anxiety and fear?
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.
The automatic nature of the activation process reflects the fact that the amygdala does its work outside of conscious awareness. We respond to danger, then only afterward realize danger is present.
Every animal (including insects and worms, as well as animals more like us) is born with the ability to detect and respond to certain kinds of danger, and to learn about things associated with danger. In short, the capacity to fear (in the sense of detecting and responding to danger) is pretty universal among animals. But anxiety ― an experience of uncertainty ― is a different matter. It depends on the ability to anticipate, a capacity that is also present in some other animals, but that is especially well developed in humans. We can project ourselves into the future like no other creature.
While anxiety is defined by uncertainty, human anxiety is greatly amplified by our ability to imagine the future, and our place in it, even a future that is physically impossible. With imagination we can ruminate over that yet to be experienced, possibly impossible scenario. We use this creative capacity to great advantage when we envision how to make our lives better, but we can just as easily put it to work in less productive ways — worrying excessively about the outcome of things. Some concern about outcomes is essential to success in meeting life’s challenges and opportunities. But at some point, most of us probably worry more than we need to. This raises the questions: How much fear and worry is too much? How do we know when we have skipped the line from normal fear and anxiety to a disorder?
And of course the line between fear and anxiety is not always clear either.
I thought that the article made an interesting point about the human ability to predict the future. It's odd that I have cast myself in the part of oracle in my life -- an amateur fortune teller. I guess it's because I thought it would be powerful to know the future. I've gotten better over the years to the point where now every time that I get burned in a prediction it's been because I've failed to take into account how truly unpredictable other human behavior can be. The more burned I become, the more reluctant I am to stick my hand in the fire. I can't decide whether that is a good thing or a bad thing.