Reprinted from the "Responding to Feelings" issue of Visions Journal, 2021, 16 (4), pp. 7-8
Have you ever felt tightness in your chest or butterflies in your gut when you think about bad things happening in the future? That’s anxiety. You know those thoughts that pop into your head and suggest the worst possible thing is going to happen? Anxiety again. Ever wanted to run away and hide when you were worried something bad was going to happen? That’s anxiety too.
The world around us affects our feelings. The COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, social injustice, inequity, homelessness, the opioid crisis, economic instability, food scarcity: these realities can weigh heavily on our minds. On top of that, personal losses, illness, interpersonal stress and all the daily hassles of living can add to our emotional load.
When we experience difficult life events, they play on our thoughts and evoke a range of negative emotions—sadness, anger and disgust, to name a few. But the emotion that keeps many of us up at night is anxiety.
We feel anxious when we think about the future and imagine the harm that could happen. It is really easy to imagine a million different scenarios that are potentially harmful. We want to know everything is going to be OK. We want to be sure. We want to be certain. We want to be safe, not sorry.
Anxiety is an emotion associated with anticipating uncertain harm.1 It is a feeling of apprehension about what is to come. Anxiety is characterized by:
- thoughts focused on potential harm
- behaviours or actions intended to deal with danger (e.g., run away, hide, fight)
- bodily changes that help people do those actions (e.g., increased muscle activation, heart rate and breathing prepare us for “fight, flight or freeze” reactions)
Anxiety is different from fear. Fear is associated with certain harm. If the harm you are facing is certain (e.g., a bear is attacking you), then you will experience fear. If the harm you are facing is uncertain (e.g., there might be a bear in the area), then you will experience anxiety. It’s also possible to have the double whammy of bad things actually happening and the potential for more bad things to happen in the future—the fear-plus-anxiety one-two punch.
Differentiating between fear and anxiety can help us figure out the best course of action.
This is easier said than done. There is 100% dangerous, but there is no 100% safe. We’re living in a time when the cut-off between fear and anxiety seems blurrier than ever. It’s hard to figure out—even for me, a psychologist who thinks about anxiety for a living. It is impossible to avoid or eliminate all risk. When it comes to the uncertain “grey zone,” the only way out is through.
Not all uncertain circumstances make us feel anxious. Three types of uncertain situations are most likely to make us feel anxious:
- novel (new and unfamiliar)
- ambiguous (unclear, unknown, undefined)
- unpredictable (likely to change suddenly and without apparent reason)
Think about your current situation. Do you notice any of these elements? I know I sure do. If the COVID-19 pandemic did not hit anxiety’s uncertainty buttons for you, then maybe work, family, financial, societal, health or other personal uncertainties did.
Situations differ, but so do people. Scientific research shows that individuals differ in how much uncertainty bothers them. Some people are OK with having a lot of uncertainty in their lives; others cannot stand even a small amount. It’s like having an allergy: the same thing can cause different reactions, depending on the person.
People who experience a lot of anxiety, particularly adults who worry excessively (like me), are more likely to be bothered by uncertainty. People who have difficulty tolerating uncertainty will often try to plan and prepare for everything as a way of removing uncertainty in daily life situations. They may seek reassurance that everything is OK to the point that other people may get frustrated. They may procrastinate and even avoid uncertain situations altogether.
But these behaviours are still not enough to get rid of uncertainty and can even make anxiety worse in the long term.
It is impossible to completely avoid uncertainty and potential harm. Remember: life does not have a 100% safe option. (Oh, how I wish it did!) But how we think about uncertainty can affect our feelings of anxiety. Let’s take the example of uncertainty around job loss. Some anxious thoughts will overestimate the threat of harm. If we fill in the blanks of an uncertain event with a certain negative outcome, we will feel more anxious. “I don’t know whether I will lose my job” becomes “I am going to get fired.”
Another type of belief that increases anxiety is assuming that negative outcomes will be catastrophic, such as “My whole family will suffer and perish because I cannot provide for them.” Anxious thoughts can also underestimate your ability to cope, like “I will not be able to handle being unemployed.” If things are unclear and we look at them expecting to find harm and failure to cope, that is what we will see. This is one way uncertainty fuels our anxiety.
Some recent research suggests that anxiety surrounding uncertainty taps into the same brain circuitry as fear of definite threats.2 When we worry that something bad might happen, our brains may react as though that bad thing is actually happening. That could explain why, based on our feelings, it is so hard to tease out the difference between anxiety and fear.
The world will always present us with hardships and uncertainties. We may react with fear, anxiety or a host of emotions. Naming these emotions can help tame them. Being aware of what we are thinking and how that affects our feelings can help us cope with anxiety and decide on the best course of action during uncertain times.
About the author
Dr. Melanie Badali is a Registered Psychologist certified in cognitive behavioural therapy. She is in private practice at the North Shore Stress and Anxiety Clinic (www.nssac.ca) and serves as a director on the board for Anxiety Canada
Learn more at Anxiety Canada: anxietycanada.com.
Hur, J., Smith, J. , DeYoung, K., Anderson, A., Kuang, J., Kim, H., Tillman, R., Kuhn, M., Fox, A. & Shackman, A. (2020). Anxiety and the neurobiology of temporally uncertain threat anticipation. Journal of Neuroscience, 40(41), 7949–7964. biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.02.25.964734v4.full.pdf.