“It’s a fear problem,” she says. “I’m terrified of his anger.”
“What’s Joe do when he gets angry?” I ask.
“Ever hit you?”
“Throw things? Break things?”
“Hurt the kids? Leave you? Threaten you in some other way?”
“No,” she frowns. “Just yells.”
“Okay,” I say. “Yelling’s unpleasant. But why do you think you’re terrified of Joe’s yelling?”
“Oh, my dad yelled,” she says. “All the time. Dad hit us, too.”
“Then I’d say you don’t have a fear problem,” I say. “It’s an anxiety problem.”
“Aren’t they the same thing?”
No, they’re not.
Yes, fear and anxiety feel like the same thing. But one is a reaction to a real danger, and the other is a reaction to danger you imagine.
Say you walk into the woods and a bear rushes out at you. What you feel is fear, because this is a real bear who can really make a meal of you. But say you walk into the woods and see crowds of dark trees and think There could be bears here. This is anxiety.
It’s an important distinction. Because these two reactions reflect different problems which are solved in different ways.
Fear signals a problem out there in the environment, to which the correct response is some version of fight or flight — shoot the bear, or run away from it.
But you can’t shoot imaginary bears, and they’re hard to run away from.
Instead you solve an anxiety problem by examining the reaction itself.
“So now that you think about it,” I say to Alice, “why does Joe’s anger terrify you?”
“It must remind me of dad.”
“Right. And there wasn’t much you could do back then, was there? Couldn’t yell back, hit back, run away?”
“Now is different,” she says. “I’m not helpless now.”
“Right. Have you ever yelled back at Joe?”
“Once,” she nods.
“He stopped yelling.”
“And what happened to your anxiety?”
“It went away,” she smiles.
“I scared off the imaginary bear.”