Fears, anxiety, phobias and panic attacks are a part of our emotional life. Let’s look at the differences between them and if there is something that can be done about it.
I think, language is not working properly when it comes to fear and anxiety. German and English, which are very similar seem to have a blind spot regarding this topic. And we are careless with those words, too.
Nowadays you hear people say things like: “I’m so freaked out because of the new episode of this or that tv show”. Well, are you freaked out? Really? Completely out of your mind? You think you’re gonna die?
Or people are stressed out about things. It’s perfectly okay to say: “I’m stressed out because of this speech I have to give.” Stress is fine, is good. But it’s a sign of weakness to be afraid. To be anxious.
So, I think the first thing we ought to do is defining what we’re talking about. And this definitions are just my way to put this. It’s not the correct psychological use of the terms. Okay?
Let’s start with fear. That’s the basic emotion. If you are alone and stupid enough to sleep in that haunted cabin in the woods and suddenly you face the demogorgon from “Stranger Things”, a little fear could prove to be beneficial. Maybe you are surprised, maybe you are even shocked. But you are not stressed out.
You are confronted with your fear. The body gets in the flight or fight decision, flooding you with its hormons.
Adrenalin kicks in. The normal reaction is a kind of paralysis. Nothing happens. Like in good movies, too. Then you are free to run like Sonic, or you fight like Bruce Lee or you shit your pants. Not your free choice, your body decides.
For reasons unknown to me, Adrenalin has quite a good reputation. But it is the hormon of fear.
And fear is not a bad thing. It is absolutely reasonable to be afraid of a gun hold at your skull or a knife pointed at your guts or your statement of account.
Fear saves lives and it has done good things for our species. If the mitochondrial Eve in Africa, back in the days, would not have been capable of fear, we would not be here. In the presence of a sabre-toothed tiger fear is a healthy emotion.
Fear is a reaction to things that are real.
So, here comes anxiety. Anxiety is an emotion that makes you afraid of things that are not real. Things that are not happening right now, but things that may happen. It’s like the memory of fear. It may even have the same symptoms as fear has, but it is not linked to something you are experiencing right in this moment.
You maybe anxious that some huge cat may eat you some day in the future. If the door bell rings, you open and it’s a sabre-toothed tiger you are not anxious anymore, you experience fear. Fear and not panic.
If you are stressed out because of that public speech, you are experiencing anxiety. You can feel the difference, because anxiety is not produced by adrenaline. Your head may feel dizzy, maybe you have nausea or you’re sweating or you develop nervous ticks.
Anxiety exists, because our brain constantly tries to predict the future. And in case of the public speech it is anticipating a situation that may be filled with fear.
Though that can be a good thing, too, anxiety can lead to more anxiety. It can be much worse than fear. You can wake up in the middle of the night, because you are anxious. And not having enough sleep makes you even more anxious. You can be anxious of being anxious.
Because we forget all the situations the prognosis our anxiety made about life was completely wrong. We are so relieved that it’s gone, we don’t reflect on it anymore. Because, truth told, there are really bad speakers. Watch TEDTalks on YouTube. Most speakers are great, but some are really terrible.
But – who cares. As far as I know, no bad speaker at a TEDTalk was lynched by a mob so far.
If rational thinking would really have magical powers to change our subconscious, anxiety would not be a huge problem.
Anxiety is a part of our emotions, everyone experiences it, but in most cases it is irrational. That does not help very much, if you’re anxious, I know, but maybe a little.
Speaking of irrational fears, now let’s have a look at phobias. This is classified as an anxiety disorder. Which means, there is an anxiety order, too. Which I will never join. Sounds frightening.
Let’s say mitochondrial Eve met this specific sabre-toothed tiger who is able to ring door bells. She was afraid of it, they had a fight. The tiger bit Eve and then left. Don’t know why, to bite into something else, probably.
If the bite was an unpleasant experience, which we can presuppose, it would be a healthy reaction for Eve to be anxious about sabre-toothed tigers. This is the way our subconscious tries not to repeat a very bad experience.
If Eve is intelligent and has only a little grain of imagination, she will be anxious of all kind of tigers. And of lions. Leopards, cheetahs – of any kind of big cats. But, let’s think about that: Aren’t hyenas huge animals? And don’t they have teeth? And dogs? Well, this is getting completely out of control, Eve thinks, let’s better not think about it! Let’s talk about, let’s say Death Metal music.
And because she suppresses this anxieties, the grow silently and get even more problematic. She loses the ability to even look at cat memes on the internet. She does not know why that happens, but she is anxious about cats. She even forgot the day that sabre-toothed tiger bit her – don’t say tiger! I hate the word tiger!
Phobias are anxieties that change while you are busy not looking at them.
And then there are panic attacks. Let’s not forget about panic. These are tricky!
A panic attack is a very sudden, strong fear that completely takes over your body. It is a fear of death. It is the fear that something really bad will happen. Something that’s so bad, it may kill you.
It has heavy symptoms. You are short of breath, your heart races, you sweat, you shake, you may even think your limbs go numb.
This can have many different causes. It can come from anxiety disorders. Like phobias. From PTSD. Or from drugs. Even from too much coffee and cigarettes.
Panic attacks are quite common. But you don’t talk about it! It’s a sign that you are weak. You are a psycho! You don’t control your emotions, don’t you? Loser!
I had two huuuge panic attacks. The first one was really life-threatening. It happened – and this is not made up, you can ask my ex – the night before my wedding. I developed all the symptoms I just described. In fact, after some time I was sure, I am about to die from a heart attack. I even called the emergency.
A doctor came, had a look at me and told me, my body works just fine. Nothing to hear in my heart beat, blood pressure was just fine. He said: “You are making this up! You don’t want to get married!”
That didn’t help. Because now I was not only dying from a heart disease that doctor was too stupid to diagnose, now I was a liar and a cheat, too.
The symptoms lasted for hours. I didn’t sleep that night. And I got married the next day, even if I experienced it in a haze.
The panic attack was gone. But now I developed a new anxiety. The one about panic attacks.
Like a hypochondriac I constantly monitored my body for symptoms of a new panic attack. Because, maybe my panic attack was not just that. I may really suffer from a rare heart disease.
To be honest: Nothing I did helped in this weeks, even months. Not meditation, not awareness, no breathing technique. It slowly went away. I even forgot about it. Nicely done, subconscious, because the second one came as a surprise again!
So, is there help?
Now, with two panic attacks, I had two samples, I knew a little more about my symptoms. And some things helped. As soon as I felt the first symptoms, I immediately took a break. Stopped what I was doing. Later I applied these techniques to anxiety, too.
And deep breathing helped. Maybe you know the drill. It’s called the 4-7-8-technique.
Breathe out once completely.
Breathe in through the nose for 4 seconds as deep as you can.
Hold your breath for a count of 7 seconds.
Exhale through the mouth for 8 seconds. Make a sound while you do that.
Repeat until you feel your pulse normalising. Four to six times is a good number. Don’t do this for a longer time , you’ll get dizzy – believe me. Tested by me.
The next thing is called the 5-4-3-2-1 coping technique. It’s a help to bring you back from the irrational land of anxiety to the moment you are really living in.
Look around and find five object you can see. Even if you feel like a lunatic, say it loud. In my case: Keyboard, monitor, lamp, empty coffee cup, table, my hands. You don’t have to be creative.
Then find four things you can touch. Say it loud. In my case: The keyboard again, my glasses, the computer mouse, the zipper on my pullover.
Then listen and find three things you can hear. Say it loud. In my case: The blackbirds outside, the keyboard – again, my stomach growling. It’s the coffee, I guess.
Now find two things you are smelling right now. Say it loud. In my case. The smell of the detergent on my pullover. And a little bit coffee smell in the air.
The last thing is: Find one thing you can taste. Say it loud. In my case: The toast that I ate half an hour ago. I still think I should have buttered it. Which I did not because of the calories.
I do think that meditation helped me a lot through the years. But when I married I was only five years into it. And not sure if I should continue. In the long run you get so trained into being aware of the moment right now, that it develops into a kind of reflex. I haven’t used the 5-4-3-2-1 technique for many years. But I will use it again, if anxiety overwhelmed me again. Or if the next panic attack comes. And I’m quite sure, it will.
To be afraid is fine. No need to change anything with that. To be anxious or to have a panic attack is something that happens to many people. Often these are the sensible ones, the deep ones, the ones with a vivid imagination. Don’t be ashamed of it. Anxiety or panic is nothing to be ashamed of.
I am not the most self secure guy around. And there are some things I am ashamed of. But not anxiety. To be anxious nowadays is a healthy response, because we are surrounded by media that wants us to be anxious. And to be not anxious is an effort.
If you experience anxiety or panic, then I suggest: Talk about it. Really. Let’s change it into something we can talk about. Let’s use the right words and let’s share. You will see, most people will know what you are talking about.
Regarding phobia: If your phobia turns into anxiety or panic, the techniques I described, may help. But the problem at the root will not go away. You could seek professional help. Phobia can be very successfully treated. Here at the airport in Munich there is a therapist that treats flight phobia right on the spot. In the minutes you are waiting for a flight. Minutes may be not the time range for most of the phobias, but there is something that can be done for most.
In the end: Fear, phobias, anxiety and panic are a part of the human experience. They are just here.
They are a part of life. Of life itself.