Fear and anxiety are closely linked, but they are not the same. In this article, we offer separate definitions of fear vs anxiety. First, we will take an in-depth look at how both affect our lives, and later on in the article we’ll offer some useful tips to help you overcome any fear or anxiety you might be experiencing.
What is Anxiety?
According to Dr. Thierry Steimer in Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, anxiety is ‘a psychological, physiological, and behavioral state induced in animals and humans by a threat to well-being or survival, either actual or potential.’ Steimer outlines the characteristics of anxiety disorders, which include:
- Arousal – accelerated heart rate, sweating, tense muscles
- Expectancy – imagined danger or believing that it is present
- Autonomic activation – activation of the autonomic nervous system (ANS), which mobilizes the body for action
- Neuroendocrine activation – release of stress-related chemicals such as cortisol, norepinephrine, and adrenaline
- Specific behavior patterns – hostility, vigilance, avoidance
All of the above are integral parts of the body’s completely natural fight or flight response. The fight or flight response is what helps us deal with threats in the environment.
Understanding the Human Threat Response
Many people already know a thing or two about fight/flight, but you may not know that there are other responses to threats that we have developed over our evolution as a species. Dr. Stephen Porges posed the polyvagal theory, which suggests that our threat response system can be likened to a ladder comprising of the following:
1. Social Engagement
At the top rung of Porges’ ladder is social engagement. It may sound cynical, but one of the main reasons we socialize and form bonds with others to maintain our position in the community.
Social engagement helped our ancestors stay connected with others with whom they could share resources, shelter, and protection.
One rung below social engagement is vigilance, which we can also call anxiety.
We enter a state of vigilance because something in our environment has alerted our brain to a potential danger. The danger, or threat, is not immediate, but it would be best to prepare to take action just in case.
3. Fight or Flight
After vigilance comes the well-known fight or flight response. If the potential threat becomes more immediate, a small, almond-shaped region in the brain known as the amygdala sends a cue of danger to the rest of the body.
The sympathetic nervous system (SNS), one of two branches of the autonomic nervous system, activates in response. It elicits a tightening of the muscles, an increased heart rate, dilated pupils, and rapid breathing to support us as we fight or flee from the threat.
At the bottom rung of the ladder is the freeze response. It is our last resort against a threat and happens when the threat is too powerful to defeat.
In most mammals, the freeze response looks like feigned death. In British psychologist Benjamin Fry’s The Invisible Lion, the author uses the example of a gazelle and a lion to demonstrate the freeze response.
A gazelle being chased by a lion will run away because it knows it’s not strong enough to fight it. If the lion is fast enough to catch the gazelle, the gazelle will freeze when it’s caught. It plays dead, which tells the lion that it doesn’t need to be so focused on catching it anymore.
The lion believes the gazelle is dead. If the lion then becomes distracted by another lurking predator, the gazelle may have another chance to escape. If the gazelle’s nervous system detects that the lion is no longer near, it exits its freeze response, re-enters fight or flight, and makes a run for its life. Soon after, the gazelle is back to normal.
As humans, however, we don’t feign death when we freeze. Instead, we tend to dissociate, whereby our psyche leaves reality and takes refuge somewhere else. This serves to protect our psychological well-being.
Still, suppose we remain in our freeze response for too long. In that case, we will live our lives in a state of frozen threat response activation, which is also considered anxiety.
Why do we experience anxiety?
The purpose of the above is to help us cope with unexpected threatening situations.
For example, if you were to walk down a dark alley at night, your body and mind would likely respond to your situation with an accelerated heart rate, tense muscles, alertness, and thoughts about the potential danger present.
All of these responses prepare you to deal with the threat if it comes up. If you weren’t prepared, your chances of survival would be reduced if a threat to your life presented itself. As such, anxiety serves an essential survival function.
If it weren’t for anxiety, you may not get the chance to fight or flee from the threat in enough time to survive. Hence, anxiety has helped our species stay alive for tens of thousands of years.
What are the Symptoms of Anxiety?
Understanding that anxiety serves our survival may not seem like much help when we experience it so frequently that it prevents us from fully living and enjoying our lives.
If you experience anxiety occasionally or frequently, you may feel any of the following symptoms.
- Shortness of breath
- Tight chest
- Chest pain
- Tight chest
- Muscle aches and pains
- Excessive worry and rumination
- Shaking, trembling
- Excessive sweating
- Shaky voice
- Nausea, vomiting
- Sleep disturbance
- Reluctance to socialize, go to school, or go to work
Physical symptoms commonly overlap and can be deeply uncomfortable and distressing.
Still, psychoeducation can go a long way in helping us overcome our panic attacks and and live quality lives in the present. Fortunately, there is a wealth of research that exists on the biological and neurological mechanisms that underlie anxiety.
Animal studies and neuroimaging studies in humans have led to an impressive and inspiring understanding of anxiety, and we can expect to see a lot more research published on the topic in the near future.
Is Anxiety a Mental Health Condition?
If you experience anxiety, that doesn’t necessarily mean you have a mental health condition. Anxiety is a completely natural emotion, and everyone experiences it from time to time.
Still, if your anxiety persists and gets in the way of your work, school, relationships, and overall mental health, you may be struggling with an anxiety disorder.
According to the Diagnostics and Statistical Manual Fifth Edition (DSM-V), common types of anxiety disorders include:
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder
- Social Anxiety Disorder
- Obsessive-compulsive Disorder
- Specific Phobias
- Post-traumatic Stress Disorder
If you find that your experience with any of the above, seek out a trained mental health professional. These mental health conditions and disorders can also jeopardize your physical well-being, but they don’t have to.
People with anxiety disorders fear things that have not yet happened, and may not even happen. Evidence-based therapies and treatments such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and exposure therapy are available as soon as you reach out for help.
What is Fear?
Unlike anxiety, which usually arises in response to an unknown or perceived threat, fear refers to our emotional and physiological response to a ‘known stimuli’.
The fear response is elicited through any one of our five senses.
If we see an attacker running towards us, hear footsteps behind us when we thought we were alone, smell smoke, feel a hand grab our arm, or taste something potentially poisonous, the body responds with fear as, a motivation to take action to survive.
Similar to anxiety, fear elicits increased physical and psychological arousal, autonomic activation, and neuroendocrine activation.
Is There a Difference Between Fear and Anxiety?
There are distinct similarities and differences between fear and anxiety. Both anxiety and fear share the physical and psychological characteristics, which are outlined in the DSM-V and this article by Suma P. Chand as:
Physical Similarities Between Fear and Anxiety
- Rapid heartbeat
- High blood pressure
- Nausea, stomach discomfort
- Muscle tension
- Dry mouth
- Dilated pupils
Psychological Similarities Between Fear and Anxiety
- Emotional overwhelm
- Perceived loss of control
- Detachment from the body (dissociation)
Fear vs Anxiety: Understanding the Difference
Fear is typically rooted in the present. It is a response to a real threat or impending danger.
While the psychological and physical symptoms of fear and anxiety are similar, one of the major differences is that anxiety is anticipatory – it is about the future. When we are anxious, we expect or anticipate a threat and may worry that our response to fear will not be enough to overcome it.
Ideally, when we face a threat and it passes, the fear dissipates.
Anxiety may also refer to a prolonged stress response in which the fear we experienced in the face of a past threat has not yet dissipated or been fully processed. Furthermore, the anxious state can be so uncomfortable and distressing that we come to fear anxiety itself.
Another distinct difference between anxiety and fear is the prolonged or frequently recurring states of anxiety that can have a long-lasting impact on our emotional, mental, and physical health.
Common adverse health consequences of prolonged anxiety include:
- Headaches, migraines
- Digestive problems
- Sleep issues, restlessness, insomnia
- Poor concentration
- Mood swings
Ultimately, one could say that fear and anxiety are not the same but are close cousins.
Fear is present when we are anxious, but anxiety is not necessarily there when we are in fear. Moreover, fear is typically short-lived because it happens in response to an immediate known or definite threat.
If the physical and psychological symptoms of fear continue after the threat has passed, or we anticipate a feeling of fear and worry that it will overwhelm us, we enter a state of anxiety.
How Do I Know if I’m Experiencing Fear or Anxiety?
The symptoms of both fear and anxiety disorder are similar and often co-occur.
Despite the common overlap, experiences of fear and anxiety are different for each person. The differences typically lie in the nature of the threat, one’s past experiences or unresolved trauma, the affected person’s level of emotional resilience, and the availability of support after a threatening event.
If something presents an immediate danger, and you tense up, react aggressively, or run away, you had a fear response.
You know that you’re experiencing anxiety if you feel fear but there is no clear threat in the environment, or you still have fear that continues even after the fear-inducing event is over.
If you’re still unsure, ask yourself some of the following questions;
- Are my feelings based on something happening right now, or something from the past or future?
- Do my feelings of fear subside once a threat has passed?
- Are my feelings disproportionate to the severity of the situation?
- Do I experience as a direct result of intrusive or uncomfortable thoughts?
- Do my fear-related feelings take over my attention frequently?
- Do I intentionally avoid people, places, or things because I anticipate fear?
Other than the above, consider your history of mental health.
If you have been through psychological trauma, experienced a severe medical illness, or are constantly exposed to environmental stressors, you are more likely to experience both fear and anxiety more than others who do not share the same experience.
How to Overcome Fear and Anxiety
If feelings of fear or anxiety are getting in the way of your life, know that you don’t need to let them take control.
Below we have outlined some important self-help tips to keep in mind next time you find yourself fearful or anxious, including some tips to help you prevent and reduce the frequency of these distressing feelings.
1. Face Your Fear
If you find that you avoid socializing or public speaking because you anticipate fear or worry that you’re going to have a panic attack, you may be missing out on some excellent opportunities to grow and develop as a person.
If possible, try to expose yourself to situations you would normally fear. Of course, this advice is best taken with a pinch of salt. Too much exposure to a potentially fearful situation at once can be harmful to your mental health. Still, try to take small steps.
2. Track Your Anxiety
Learn more about yourself and your feelings of fear or anxiety by keeping a journal. Know what triggers anxiety and write them down.
Journaling is an excellent tool to help you gain perspective on the situations in your life that cause you the most fear. Through writing and reflection, you may notice that those situations become far less powerful.
3. Physical Exercise
Research has proven that even two to three sessions of physical exercise a week can drastically improve your mental health and emotional resilience. In addition, the concentration and focus required to engage in exercise may help to take your mind off your anxious or fear-based thoughts.
4. Mindfulness and Relaxation
Take some time to develop a mindfulness practice, or try out some simple relaxation techniques. When we feel overwhelmed by our emotions, it’s important to take a step and reset our minds and bodies. Manage stress in your everyday life by taking a break from the daily grind once in a while.
5. Know When to Ask for Help
If extreme fear or intense anxiety is getting in the way of your life, don’t hesitate to seek professional support.
There can unfortunately be a stigma surrounding mental illness, but for your own well-being, ignore it. At the end of the day, other people’s opinions and judgments about therapy and mental health conditions matter far less than your well-being, so seek help if you feel that it will help (it will!).
How to Stop Worrying about Things You Can’t Control
- Divert your attention to the things that you can control – This gives you a sense of personal empowerment as you choose to focus on the things within your control.
- Practice acceptance of unchangeable things – Some things will never change and it is important to understand and accept the fact that those things will never change, so that you can move on with life. An example of this may be, someone you work with or a family member is jealous of you and continually makes an effort to pull you down. Choose to accept that the person won’t change because the issue is not about you, it is about them.
- Admit your fear, and do something about it – Once you have become aware of what you are scared of, seek help from experienced people on the matters that you are fearful about. For example, if you are afraid of swimming because you do not know how to swim, start taking lessons with a coach to help you learn the skills you need to not only swim but also to overcome the fear.
- Focus on giving solutions to the problems – When we focus on solutions rather than the problem itself, we provide ourselves with opportunities to overcome the fear. For example, instead of imagining how you will fail your course, understand that you cannot control the possibility of the exam being difficult, but you can lessen the difficulty by preparing well for it.
- Learn how to unwind – Unwinding is a great way to reduce stress in life. Some things you can do to unwind include; going for a walk, keeping a journal, listing down and reciting self-affirmations. You can also take a break from social media, as it can often sometimes heighten your sense of fear and anxiety.
- Enjoy the present moment – Spend time with people you value and who value you as well. Enjoying the moment allows you to invest your energy into people who really matter and the things that serve you. You cannot control how other people behave toward you, but you can always walk away from people who do not treat you well.