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Anxiety vs. Fear

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I finally finished The Gift of Fear. I know I’ve already written a post about it, but I feel so strongly that every woman should read this book that I thought I would write another one. It has changed the way I think about fear.

You would think that after reading a book that talks about stalkers, serial killers, abusive partners, and mass shootings that I would feel more anxious than I already do. But that is not the case. If anything, I feel more confident now that I know that some part of me will alert me to danger if I listen to it.

According to De Becker, anxiety and fear are not the same thing. Anxiety derives from a root that means “to choke.” It is a state that we create in which we perceive danger that may or may not be present. Chronic anxiety actually prevents us from detecting fear because we are constantly on high alert.

De Becker goes so far as to say that we choose anxiety, but I think that’s a little extreme. If I could choose not to be anxious I would, obviously. But it’s true that I am often anxious even when I am not facing imminent danger. Like when I think about the plane rides that I will have to endure in order to get to California and Germany and possibly the Philippines this summer. I know that flying is safer than driving, but my anxiety is not convinced.

Fear, on the other hand, is a brief signal that sounds only in the presence of danger. While anxiety can be paralyzing, fear is energizing. It makes us do things that we wouldn’t ordinarily do. Like fight a shark when it’s trying to eat us. (By sticking your finger in its eye, in case you ever find yourself in this predicament.) We can certainly dismiss this signal by denying that we’re in danger–which we so often do–but we can also learn to honor our intuition and pay attention to fear.

I saw a client last year who left me feeling physically sick. Like I had been poisoned. In all the years I’ve been seeing clients, I have never felt the way I did after meeting him. But after a few weeks passed, I told myself I was overreacting. He probably isn’t that bad.

But now I know he is. He’s not here any more, and I hope I never have to see him again. Something I would have never said before I read this book.

Although the book is about learning how to protect ourselves from violence, De Becker’s final message is actually a hopeful one. The world may be a dangerous place, but it is also a safe place. Most of the time there is nothing to fear. And if we learn to pay attention to fear when it is present, we can “see hazard only in those storm clouds when it exists and live life more fully in the clear skies between them.”

I will be sure to remind myself of this before I board that plane. But I’ll still take an Ativan, if necessary.