The difference between fear and anxiety is part of what makes us human

What’s keeping you up at night?
What’s keeping you up at night?
Image: Edvard Munch/Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago
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Last week, I returned to work after some time away to get married. Twice! We divided our wedding into two celebrations on opposite coasts of the US, to make the most of our time with our family and friends. These occasions were each deeply, fundamentally awesome. The confluence of dearest loved ones embracing, laughing, dancing, eating, and just hanging out created some of the happiest memories I’ve got in the bank.

But the celebrations almost didn’t happen. There was a moment after we got engaged, when putting this all out there—our vows for our life together, our favorite songs, a bougainvillea headdress I’ve envisioned since before Instagram existed—just seemed too intensely intimate. What if it was a big let-down? What if our guests just didn’t get it? What if I looked like I was Coachella-bound?

I was afraid of being disappointed. Or, put another way: I was anxious.

“Anxiety is the price we pay for an ability to imagine the future,” says the neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux, the author of Anxious: Using the Brain to Understand and Treat Fear and Anxiety. “That’s what anxiety is, an imagination of a future that hasn’t happened yet, but that you are concerned with, worried about, dreading, and so on.”

It’s anxiety, according to LeDoux, that separates us from the animal kingdom, for better or for worse. Actual fear is a response to a direct trigger—a snake!—that most beasts share. Anxiety is another matter, he wrote in 2012. “It depends on the ability to anticipate, a capacity that is also present in some other animals, but that is especially well developed in humans. We can project ourselves into the future like no other creature.”

I have a vivid imagination, and at some point, it turned away from how humiliating/expensive/disappointing/disastrous a wedding might end up, and toward how wonderful it could be. And in the end, it was.

Acceptance and commitment

One method for overcoming anxiety is called “acceptance and commitment”—accepting and examining one’s fear, and committing to address it directly. In the case of the pre-wedding jitters, this might mean telling a friend or your partner aloud what it is you’re worried about, examining why, and tackling those variables you can control (ie: budget, playlist, flower crown).

The uses for this go far beyond clearly telling a florist you’re afraid of resembling an aspiring Instagram influencer at Coachella. As the New York Times’ Kate Murphy has written, our constant exposure to bad news around the world, combined with any external instability (trouble at home, at work, etc.) can put our brains in a constant state of “wary hypervigilance,” leaving us sort of hovering in fight-or-flight mode.

Murphy writes that acceptance and commitment “encourages people not only to accept that they are feeling fearful and examine the causes but also to think about their values and how committing to overcoming their fears would be consistent with who they want to be.”

So rather than reacting with utter despair to a newsfeed of climate-related disasters, unspeakable violence, and leaders seemingly hellbent on stripping immigrants, trans people, and other vulnerable groups of their basic rights, a person in the US might acknowledge the feelings the fearsome political climate stirs in them, and then commit to knocking on doors to help get out the vote for the midterm elections on Nov. 6.

Submerging the Sunday Scaries

My pre-wedding jitters were nothing compared to my post-wedding Sunday Scaries—the chest-tightening anticipation of returning to work after a brief honeymoon. This was not my first rodeo with the feeling, so I did a few useful and semi-responsible tasks, like replying to some emails and a load of laundry.

But what truly got me through it was the same thing that always does: I submerged myself in water.

Going for a swim at a beach near my home in Los Angeles forced me to slow my breathing—an often-recommended method for calming oneself. But it wasn’t just the breathing that snapped me out of my state of anxiety.

The ocean is a place I love and also deeply fear. Last year, at the same beach I visited on Sunday, I was called out of the water when someone saw a shark. An actual shark! In my rush to get onto dry land that day, I stepped on a stingray and got a painful, poisonous barb in my ankle.

I think about it often now—with a little jolt of pure fear every time I take a deep breath and hop off the sand, out where it’s deep enough to swim. If anxiety is a fundamental part of the human condition, sometimes conquering visceral fear can feel like a catharsis. And it’s useful to remember, out there in the big ocean, that you’re just an animal too.

This post was adapted from the Quartzy newsletter. Subscribe to receive it in your inbox each Friday.