The Difference Between Fear and Anxiety
Updated: Feb 1, 2021
Fear and anxiety both produce a similar stress response. But many experts believe that there are important differences between the two. These differences can account for how we react to various stressors in our environment.
Fear and anxiety often occur together, but these terms are not interchangeable. Even though symptoms commonly overlap, a person's experience with these emotions differs based on their context.
What is fear?
Fear is an emotional response to a known or definite threat. If you're walking down a dark street, for example, and someone points a gun at you and says, “This is a robbery," then you'd likely experience a fear response. The danger is real, definite, and immediate. There's a clear and present object of the fear.
Although the focus of the response is different (real vs. imagined danger), fear and anxiety are interrelated. When faced with fear, most people will experience the physical reactions that are described under anxiety. Fear can cause anxiety, and anxiety can cause fear. But the subtle distinctions between the two give you a better understanding of your symptoms and may be important for treatment strategies.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is a word we use for some types of fear that are usually to do with the thought of a threat or something going wrong in the future, rather than right now.
Fear and anxiety can last for a short time and then pass, but they can also last much longer and you can get stuck with them. In some cases, they can take over your life, affecting your ability to eat, sleep, concentrate, travel, enjoy life, or even leave the house or go to work or school. This can hold you back from doing things you want or need to do, and it also affects your health.
Some people become overwhelmed by fear and want to avoid situations that might make them frightened or anxious. It can be hard to break this cycle, but there are lots of ways to do it. You can learn to feel less fearful and to cope with fear so that it doesn’t stop you from living.
What do fear and anxiety feel like?
When you feel frightened or seriously anxious, your mind and body work very quickly. These are some of the things that might happen:
Your heart beats very fast – maybe it feels irregular
You breathe very fast
Your muscles feel weak
You sweat a lot
Your stomach churns or your bowels feel loose
You find it hard to concentrate on anything else
You feel dizzy
You feel frozen to the spot
You can’t eat
You have hot and cold sweats
You get a dry mouth
You get very tense muscles
These things occur because your body, sensing fear, is preparing you for an emergency, so it makes your blood flow to the muscles, increases blood sugar, and gives you the mental ability to focus on the thing that your body perceives as a threat.
With anxiety, in the longer term, you may have some of the above symptoms as well as a more nagging sense of fear, and you may get irritable, have trouble sleeping, develop headaches, or have trouble getting on with work and planning for the future
Why do I feel like this when I’m not in any real danger?
Early humans needed the fast, powerful responses that fear causes, as they were often in situations of physical danger; however, we no longer face the same threats in modern-day living.
Despite this, our minds and bodies still work in the same way as our early ancestors, and we have the same reactions to our modern worries about bills, travel, and social situations. But we can’t run away from or physically attack these problems!
The physical feelings of fear can be scary in themselves – especially if you are experiencing them and you don’t know why, or if they seem out of proportion to the situation. Instead of alerting you to danger and preparing you to respond to it, your fear or anxiety can kick in for any perceived threat, which could be imaginary or minor.
Why won’t my fear go away and leave me feeling normal again?
Fear may be a one-off feeling when you are faced with something unfamiliar.
But it can also be an everyday, long-lasting problem – even if you can’t put your finger on why. Some people feel a constant sense of anxiety all the time, without any particular trigger.
There are plenty of triggers for fear in everyday life, and you can’t always work out exactly why you are frightened or how likely you are to be harmed. Even if you can see how out of proportion a fear is, the emotional part of your brain keeps sending danger signals to your body.
Sometimes you need mental and physical ways of tackling fear.
How do I know if I need help?
Fear and anxiety can affect all of us every now and then. It is only when it is severe and long-lasting that doctors class it as a mental health problem. If you feel anxious all the time for several weeks, or if it feels like your fears are taking over your life, then it’s a good idea to ask your doctor for help or try one of the websites or numbers listed at the back of this booklet. The same is true if a phobia is causing problems in your daily life, or if you are experiencing panic attacks.
How can I help myself?
Face your fear if you can
If you always avoid situations that scare you, you might stop doing things you want or need to do. You won’t be able to test out whether the situation is always as bad as you expect, so you miss the chance to work out how to manage your fears and reduce your anxiety. Anxiety problems tend to increase if you get into this pattern. Exposing yourself to your fears can be an effective way of overcoming this anxiety.
Try to learn more about your fear or anxiety. Keep an anxiety diary or thought record to note down when it happens and what happens. You can try setting yourself small, achievable goals for facing your fears. You could carry with you a list of things that help at times when you are likely to become frightened or anxious. This can be an effective way of addressing the underlying beliefs that are behind your anxiety.
Try to learn more about your fear or anxiety. Keep a record of when it happens and what happens.
Increase the amount of exercise you do. Exercise requires some concentration, and this can take your mind off your fear and anxiety.
Learning relaxation techniques can help you with the mental and physical feelings of fear. It can help just to drop your shoulders and breathe deeply. Or imagine yourself in a relaxing place. You could also try learning things like yoga & meditation or listen to your favorite music.
Eat lots of fruit and vegetables, and try to avoid too much sugar. The resulting dips in your blood sugar can give you anxious feelings. Try to avoid drinking too much tea and coffee, as caffeine can increase anxiety levels.
Avoid alcohol, or drink in moderation
It’s very common for people to drink when they feel nervous. Some people call alcohol ‘liquid courage’, but the after-effects of alcohol can make you feel even more afraid or anxious.
How do I get help?
If you or a loved one is struggling with fear or anxiety, Wellmore is just a phone call away. We offer an array of outpatient and intensive in-home programs for children, teens, and adults to treat ADHD, depression, anxiety as well as other behavioral health issues.
Our treatment team includes clinical social workers, marriage and family therapists, psychiatrists, and other treatment specialists who employ person-centered approaches to depression and anxiety, and strategies for addressing specific needs.
Call us at 203-756-7287 (Children & Adolescents), 203-755-1143 (Adults), or visit wellmore.org for more information. Telehealth and telephonic services are also offered.