Mental health is a balance between conflicting factors within the individual, and harmony between the individual and the environment. Let’s focus on how the psychological balance can be disturbed. I would like to explain it as plainly as possible. Take, for example, two emotional states; “fear” and “anxiety”. People often confuse their meaning. However, in whatever way we use these words, the emotions they represent are a very important factors in everyone’s life and it is useful to learn to distinguish them. Regardless of what you mean by saying these words, the psyche interprets fear as caution, which arises as a result of real external danger. At an early stage it appears as a bad “gut feeling”. Anxiety, however, is a feeling which arises from the threat posed by internal conflicts within the personality.
In fact, we cannot always distinguish these feelings. Sometimes they are mixed. The appearance of real danger may create fear, but after the danger has passed, even the thought of it can make us distraught. This is the manifestation of anxiety. Sometimes we speak about the “fear of heights” or “the fear of public speaking.” All of these are different kinds of “fears”, which are called phobias. Phobias are composed of anxieties associated with unconscious conflicts within the personality, and are stimulated by specific external situations or factors. Consequently, on the surface, fear and anxiety appear to be similar, and regardless of age or gender, when we feel anxiety or fear we tremble, worry, become feverish, our breathing quickens, the heart beats faster, we sweat, we lose our appetite and sleep and become overwhelmed by nightmares. However, the similarity ends there. The real difference between fear and anxiety is manifested in their action.
When a person learns about a real danger such as an imminent collision, a fire, flood, or even an overdue bill, he or she immediately takes drastic action to escape from the situation. We take action by running from the source of danger, finding the money for the overdue bill, etc. Fear arising from an external threat is dealt by taking action; fight or flight. And what happens when our psychological balance is threatened by the disturbance which we call the anxiety?
I should say that psychologically anxious individuals will experience a sense of anticipatory fear, suspicion and psychological stress for prolonged periods of time.
A good example of anxiety, which most of us should be familiar with, is the stress of final exams. Let’s examine the different way anxiety can manifest itself in this simple situational example. The anxiety can be healthy, serving a particular purpose by creating the fear, which motivates us to study. During the exam it allows us to focus and avoid trick questions. Alternatively, the anxiety can lose these effective qualities and become more similar to the helplessness of 3-year-old child who cannot overcome a given obstacle. In this case the person may feel too overwhelmed to study, and during the actual exam over think each question. In the first case, the exam is recognized and accepted as a challenge which can be overcome. Therefore, anxiety appears as an ally. In the second case, the stress and anxiety is far from useful. The anxiety prevents the person from coping and succeeding.
In our lives we frequently encounter many similarly stressful situations. Sometimes these potentially dangerous situations occur not only in the social, but also in the personal sphere. I believe that the ability to withstand anxiety is crucial in achieving mental stability and health, as well as prosperity and success. What kinds of skills are necessary to withstand the anxiety? In my practice I have found that people experiencing anxiety want to either instantaneously change the stress inducing situation without considering the consequences, or immediately escape and hide from the situation. Both of these behaviors only increase the likelihood of experiencing anxiety in the future, and will continue to be the sources of anxiety even in the most stable of external environments.
The ability to pursue ones goals and aspirations in the face of difficulty is perhaps analogous to coping with anxiety. In my practice I have found that people can cope better with anxiety if they are capable of self understanding and insight. A person can deal with anxiety if they don’t try to hide or avoid the situation at hand. Conversely, the more a person tries to protect themselves from anxiety and to avoid the problem: it will only create more anxiety and worsen their ability to handle it. We all have different ways of coping with anxiety. Some are able to withstand anxiety for a long time; others cannot handle it for a minute. Our psyche cannot withstand prolonged stress, which can lead to increased conflict or a state of depression Yet, for some, the physiological responses to anxiety are more prominent that the mental. Even if the mind remains stable it can affect the physical health and lead to a number of systemic diseases. This is especially the case for individuals who tend to deny the significance of the emotional world, and along with it, the presence of anxiety. It has been established that a person living in a state of anxiety for a prolonged period of time is likely to develop one or more organic diseases as a result of the accumulated stress (eg, stomach diseases, asthmatic disease, and many others).
In this article, I have tried to briefly draw your attention to the fact that we often falsely attribute anxiety to external circumstances and thus feel powerless and incapable of making a difference in our lives. However, I would like to stress once again that the origin of anxiety is internal and creating the desired changes will take insight and understanding of the self.