Ambigiuous threat

Anxiety

The feeling when you think about bad things that could happen to you. You are on guard, because you don't know what the threat is.

If you experience anxiety, you feel threatened, but you are uncertain by what or how. For example, when you are anxious about falling ill, when you enter an unfamiliar place and it seems ‘creepy’, or when you have a bad feeling about your financial future. The threat is unknown or abstract. Evolutionary, there is an explanation why this emotion exists next to fear, which is a reaction to a concrete threat. Fear comes with the urge to run away, but if you don’t know what or where the threat is, where are you going to run to? You may even be running towards the threat. Instead, anxiety gives you the urge to scan the environment for clues about the threat with your senses wide-open. Our brains are subconsciously processing vast amounts of information, most of which does not enter the conscious part. However, when the brain detects that something is ‘off’, it can give a trigger for anxiety. For example, prey animals detect when birds in the environment suddenly go silent, as it might mean a predator is approaching. However, as long as they don’t have more information whether that is true, and if so, where the threat is coming from, there is no point in running. Similarly, soldiers moving into an unfamiliar area may sense that something is fishy. This is based on their previous experiences. The experience of ‘feeling’ that something is wrong, but not knowing where this information comes from, can sometimes give it a magical or superstitious quality. Most people have at least experienced this in childhood, when darkness would elicit anxiety and images of creepy or magical things that weren’t there.

The unclear cause of anxiety is also one of the problems for people who experience it too often or too much of it. Because it does not have a clear cause like fear, it can be more difficult to treat anxiety issues.

In the comic, a worried-looking colleague pops into Murphy’s to tell that the boss is making an important announcement. Murphy and his colleagues don’t know what the announcement may be, but the signs are not good. Anxiously, they walk to the other room.

Movie clips

Typical expressions

“I have a bad feeling about this…”

“Who… Who is there?”

Murphy's bad day

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Comparisons with other emotions

Anxiety & Fear

The words fear and anxiety are often used interchangeably in everyday language. They both deal with uncertain events in the future, and they both put the person experiencing them in a state of readiness to deal with the threat. However, the difference between them among the most often emphasized in emotion psychology. The most important difference is what kind of threat they are responding to. Fear is evoked by concrete, immediate, and usually sudden threats (like a fast-approaching car), whereas anxiety is evoked by uncertainty of potential, unidentified threats (such as the possibility to catch a nasty disease). In case of fear, the body has a clear way to react – getting away from the threat. In case of anxiety, however, there is not a clear threat, so there is nothing to get away from. Instead, people become very vigilant and scan the surroundings for more information. Because these differences are crucial for survival, the two types of threat-responses have different pathways in the brain.

Anxiety & Worry

Anxiety and worry are both emotional responses to situations with an unclear outcome. In comparison however, anxiety also has an unclear cause, whereas worry is a response to a concrete sign. For example, new parents may have a general anxiety that something bad could happen to their child. If they are worried, in contrast, it is because there is a sign that they interpret as potentially bad, such as a rash, a recurring cough or a lack of appetite.

Anxiety & Distrust

Distrust can be considered as a type of anxiety that specifically applies to another person’s motives and trustworthiness. Like anxiety, distrust is often not based on concrete and clear information, but rather on a hunch or gut feeling. Most people have learned to interpret certain signals as possible evidence that something may be wrong about a situation (leading to anxiety) or about a person (leading to distrust).

Anxiety & Insecurity

Anxiety and insecurity are both fears for abstract threats. For both emotions, it can be difficult to pinpoint a direct cause. The difference between the emotions is in the type of threat that they respond to. In the case of anxiety, the threat is existential: threatening the physical and mental wellbeing of a person. For insecurity, the threat is social: not measuring up in the eyes of others and ultimately, being accepted.