A key goal for any therapist treating a patient suffering from anxiety is first to help that individual discern the difference between fear and anxiety.
Let me ask you. Do you know the difference between fear and anxiety? Do you know why knowing the difference between the two is so important? I assure you. It isn't merely semantics!
Anxiety and fear share a dynamic relationship with our amygdala, which in return shares a dynamic relationship with our withdrawal symptoms, anxiety, stress, rumination, and trauma responses. Which, again, can hinder our recovery. This can slow down our tapers, increase waves, and even manifest other mental illnesses or conditions. Anxiety is going camping in the woods and being worried about encountering a bear. Fear is camping in the woods and encountering a bear that charges you.
Anxiety is stress over a potential danger, whereas fear is a real biological and psychological reaction to real present danger.
Again, this is an important distinction to be made. Anxiety alerts our amygdala to possible danger, and our limbic system becomes a bit hypervigilant as if it were to open its eyes and ears to detect possible danger. Fear is when the limbic system identifies danger and takes things to the next level to help us survive.
The problem is that most of our problems and situations, even in benzo withdrawal, are something to worry about but not something to fear. See the point here. Fear will only make things worse. Fear is what escalates our limbic system into crisis mode, where we can get locked into fight or flight.
The difference in chemical response in our limbic system between anxiety AND fear is drastic. Anxiety would be like sitting in your car and resting a heavy foot on the gas pedal, increasing the RPMs, whereas fear would be like smashing the gas pedal to the floor! The trouble is, benzo withdrawal creates chemical fear, and that fear is always trying to latch on to something. It wants to get its hooks into something in our mind to secure its position and begin to feed. Our job is to then NOT feed the fear, a.k .a. feed the bear. Yes. The bear shows up independently, but we do not need to feed him. As long as we feed him, he will forever stick around. Anxiety is having heart palpitations and being concerned your heart is healthy, whereas fear is telling ourselves that we must have a heart problem and we are in real danger! That's what fear does. It amplifies the signal and completely catastrophizes things. And this is something we have to always practice awareness about because fear pulls us unconscious. Fear robs us of our rational minds. Once rationality slips away, we panic.
Think about the word 'panic'. What does it mean? What does it look like when we panic? Panic is the opposite of rationality. We can panic so badly that we can forget how to drive our cars. Because our nervous system has detected real imminent danger, and it jumps in to help us survive. When a bear charges you, there's no time or space for smelling the roses. All of our focus becomes solely upon survival.
This almost does not seem to make sense when you think about it. How does becoming so overwhelmingly afraid that we forget how to do basic things, such as driving a car or tying our shoes, help our survival?
Wouldn't that make us even more susceptible to danger?
Well, yes and no. Firstly, while the human brain is pretty amazing, it isn't perfect. It isn't without some flaws. Our nervous system is designed to prioritize fear first! Anything that impacts survival precedes other functions, which makes sense for our evolution.
However, the same fight or flight response that helps us evade or fight off a predator can become a real problem and make us sick when there is no bear or real danger.
There are 5 F's of trauma: fight, flight, friend, freeze, and flop.
They go like this. You encounter a bear. Within seconds, your mind speeds up incredibly fast, computing many things in the environment and about the situation. I.e., What kind of bear is this? Is the bear large enough to harm us? Is it a black bear or a brown bear? Does the bear have cubs nearby? Can I outrun the bear? Can I fight the bear? Is there a tree I can climb? Is there a branch or some weapon within reach that I can use to defend myself from the bear? All of these computations happen within a split second, and that's in part a chemical reaction from our limbic system. Our minds and bodies become enhanced as the limbic smacks us with a heavy dose of fight-or-flight chemicals. Our senses become greatly sensitive, and we are flooded with a chemical message of fear, translating into an overwhelming instinct to survive. If we cannot run or fight the bear, we try to befriend it. We say, "Easy, bear! Easy! It's okay!" When that doesn't work, we freeze. This is a survival instinct in nature, and with a bear, freezing could save your life. However, if the bear continues to run towards you, the next thing the nervous system may do is flop. It will render you limp. You will lose control of your body and fall to the ground like a possum. Again, this often can save your life in a predatory attack. If the bear begins to maul you while you're lying on the ground frozen, the limbic system goes one step further and disassociates you from your body. In fact, you may even feel a strange euphoric rush come over you. This is commonly reported by people who have experienced severe trauma. This isn't a bad function of nature if we are getting attacked by a bear, but it's a damn terrible one when we are coming off Benzos and are terrified we are in imminent danger!
Our limbic system can go wild without GABA to help lull the sympathetic nervous system. It can quickly and easily react to non-dangers as if they were indeed an aggressive grizzly bear. Suddenly, a heart palpitation isn't a harmless symptom of withdrawal but a potential life-ending catastrophic health event. A tough period of tapering isn't merely a rough patch coming off the world's nastiest drug, but somehow, it becomes evidence that we have permanent brain damage and will never heal! The chemical fear is constantly amplifying and exaggerating our anxieties. And this, in return, can create a kind of self-fueling loop of illness. It becomes a feedback loop. The symptoms create fear, and the fear amplifies symptoms. The amplified symptoms create more fear, and round and round we go. Understanding the difference between fear and anxiety is critical and the first step in pushing back against this process. There's, of course, much more to it, but as a feature of withdrawal, this is essentially what we are all battling. We must strive to find our North Star (hope with direction out of the woods) and constantly push back against the lies our chemical withdrawal is telling us.
And believe me, they are lies! This takes practice, but we gradually can regain more control and, at the very least, not feed the bear and slip into the circular problem.