I am currently reading Jaak Panksepp’s wonderful book “The Archaeology of Mind,” which is an extensive explanation of emotional systems in both animals and human beings. One of the distinctions he makes is between grief and panic, which are responses to real losses and fear and anxiety, which are anticipations of losses. This distinction is a useful way of thinking about our own emotional responses to our lives.
Panksepp defines grief as a response to loss of significant relationships, which can lead to a sense of panic in situations that feel unsafe. With grief, the loss has happened already, and we are responding to the meaning of that loss. Because our closest relationships provide stability in our lives, loss of those relationships can leave us confused and lost. The panic is a result of this feeling of being unsafe.
On the other hand, fear is the feeling of impending loss, particularly a loss that feels likely to happen, and anxiety is worry about that possibility. When we experience loss, we mourn it by turning to our relationships with caring others, and we are “processing,” meaning expressing, understanding, and integrating the reality of that loss. It is helpful to be with other people who care for us at those times.
Fear and anxiety, however, are about things that have not happened. While they serve the purpose of alerting us to be careful and keep ourselves safe, these feelings are anticipatory and can become amplified beyond a volume where they are useful. We can see this when we see how we respond to these feelings. If they lead to problem-solving and life improvement, they can be helpful, but if they lead to paralysis and unhappiness, they are being used against us.
We cannot necessarily control what we feel, but we can use our understanding to decide which of our feelings is important information and which of our feelings is just making trouble for us. There is a feeling self and a thinking self, and then there is an observing self that decides which parts of what our minds generate is important, what part is accurate about reality, and what part does not match with what we know and who we want to be. We may still have to feel it or think it, but we don’t have to endorse it.