Halloween is a time when many of us like to celebrate fear—at least the controlled kind that comes from being in a haunted corn maze or wearing a scary costume.
The less fun fear comes when you’re facing an immediate threat to your survival. Think: You’re staring down a tiger or about to go bungee jumping. “The biological and evolutionary purpose of core emotions, like fear, is to help us survive,” says psychotherapist Hilary Jacobs Hendel, LSCW. “Fear specifically makes us flee from danger.”
And while it may feel similar to anxiety and worry, the emotions are unique, according to Hendel.
Anxiety comes from avoiding our emotions and needs, she says. “More specifically, anxiety results from the physical effort to push down emotions.” Another hallmark of anxiety is that you may not even know what you’re anxious about—you may simply feel a vague sense of apprehension.
And worry is actually a component of anxiety, according to Harvard Medical School. The Harvard experts explain that anxiety is comprised of three components: emotional, physiological, and cognitive. Worry is the latter—it’s the negative thoughts you get before you, say, give a big presentation in front of a group of people. It’s that voice in your head saying you can’t do it or you’re going to bonk.
“When we feel anxious or scared, it’s time to understand what is happening so we can respond to our emotions in a way that nurtures both our short- and long-term emotional health,” says Hendel. Here, a few ways how to do just that:
ID what you’re feeling.
“If we know we are not in physical danger in a moment, yet we are experiencing something akin to fear, we can assume we are experiencing anxiety,” Hendel explains. Then do a symptom check: If you’re experiencing cognitive anxiety, that’s worry.
If it’s fear, fight or flee.
Fear will calm down once you no longer feel threatened or in danger, says Hendel. So, by all means, get yourself to safety! If it’s that jolt of adrenaline that comes with fear that you’re looking for, like that haunted corn maze for example, enjoy the ride!
If it’s worry, reframe your thinking.
Let’s go back to those “I’m going to bonk” thoughts we just covered. The Harvard experts recommend challenging these thoughts by asking yourself if they’re valid or helpful. “You will likely find that these thoughts are merely fueled by your anxious brain, so stopping them in their tracks is important,” they note. You can also practice mindfulness.
If it’s anxiety, seek calm.
“Anxiety, on the other hand, needs to be calmed not only to feel better, but to help get us in touch with the core emotions that underlie it (like anger, sadness, or even excitement),” Hendel says. She adds that it can be helpful to find a quiet place to slow down, feel your feet on the ground, and practice a breathing exercise. And of course, if your anxiety is persistent or extreme, talk to your doctor or seek out a qualified mental health professional.
Maintain a no-judgement zone.
“Try never to judge the emotions you discover within,” Hendel says. “Instead appreciate them for how they inform us of our humanity and remind us we are alive.”