Fear vs. Anxiety: How to Tell the Difference

Fear and anxiety are similar emotions that often co-occur and are easily mistaken for one another. Fear is a strong biological response to imminent danger. Anxiety is marked by apprehension and worry over things that may or may not occur. Both emotions can feel the same, but there are some important differences to note.

To fully understand the difference between fear and anxiety separately, you must review their similarities and their differences. You can start by exploring the physiological, psychological, and physical symptoms of both emotions. From there, you’ll know how to differentiate between the two as they occur. Finally, it’s also important to know when it might be time to seek professional help if you have a repetitive, extreme fear or a generalized anxiety disorder.

What is the difference between Fear and Anxiety?

There’s a distinct, key difference between fear and anxiety. Fear results from a clear and present danger, while anxiety results from the anticipation of an unspecified threat. Each of these emotions is marked by unique expressions of mental and body effects.

“Fear and anxiety can feel like the same thing as the symptoms are quite similar. While it’s difficult to tease it out at the moment, gaining insight if one is experiencing fear over anxiety is important. Anxiety often stems from an unclear threat, while fear is based around a real and clear threat. It’s not to say that fear and anxiety don’t work together, but that they tap into different triggers.”

Talkspace therapist Minkyung Chung, MS, LMHC

What is Fear?

Fear is an uncontrollable survival emotion that serves to protect us from real danger. Humans have evolved over time, with their sense of fear intact, to stay alive and safe from harm.

The limbic system is called your “emotional brain.” We experience fear when it’s a perceived threat, like when someone suddenly touches your back, or when you hear an animal running up toward you, or when you smell smoke coming from your child’s bedroom.

Fear can cause marked changes in smell, taste, hearing, touch, and vision — all the senses that provide information about the perceived threat you’re facing. Fear prepares you to either enter into battle or flee for your safety.

The sensation of fear is immediate and beyond your control. What you can control, however, is how you manage fear symptoms. That said, you can’t always stop them from happening in the first place.

The purpose of fear is to fuel your flight-or-fight fear response to external stimuli. It causes multiple symptoms that are similar to those of anxiety. Let’s take a closer look at the symptoms that fear can cause.

Signs and Symptoms of Fear

As emotions go, fear causes some of the most noticeable changes in the brain and body. That’s because we’re forced to pay attention to our fear. Anxiety, on the other hand, is not imperative for survival. That’s why we sometimes don’t feel symptoms of anxiety quite as strongly or immediately as we might experience fear.

There are some common physiological, psychological, and physical symptoms of fear.

Physiological symptoms of fear:

  • Quick, shallow breathing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Hot flashes or chills
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Upset stomach
  • Goosebumps
  • Tight chest
  • dry mouth
  • Trembling
  • Sweeting
  • Nausea

Psychological symptoms of fear:

  • Feeling detached from your body
  • Inability to focus and concentrate
  • Feeling a sense of stress
  • Lacking emotional control
  • A pending sense of doom

Physical symptoms of fear:

  • Flight response (running for safety)
  • Freezing up (inability to move)
  • Displaying violence
  • Clinching fists

What is Anxiety?

Anxiety is a sense of vague apprehension. It can be difficult to know how to diagnose anxiety disorders. It makes you feel unpleasant, negative thoughts and you often can’t understand why. What causes anxiety is imprecise threats that may or may not have any foundation. It’s a general sense of dis-ease, like how you might feel when walking down a dark, quiet city street in the middle of the night.

Signs and Symptoms of Anxiety

Anxiety is believed to have evolved in humans as a mechanism for protecting us against threats that may not even exist. Overwhelming anxiety gives us warnings that something dangerous might be about to happen.

For instance, you might get anxious because you believe that you could be attacked by a bear while walking in the woods. However, there may be no bears for miles around you. Anxiety isn’t completely useless though, because there actually could be a bear nearby. Ultimately, anxiety can serve to help keep you alert but causes harm when it goes too far.

Physiological symptoms of anxiety:

  • Trembling or shaking
  • Sweeting
  • Tightness in the chest area
  • Upset stomach and nausea
  • Quick, shallow breathing
  • Chills or hot flashes
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Muscle pain
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness

Psychological symptoms of anxiety:

  • Inability to focus on conversations, tasks, or thoughts
  • Racing, negative thoughts
  • Sense of impending doom
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Constant worrying
  • Catastrophizing
  • Restlessness
  • Irritability
  • Fatigue

Physical symptoms of anxiety:

  • Inability to complete mundane tasks
  • Difficulty sitting still and staying calm
  • Drug and alcohol use
  • Being started easily
  • Social withdrawal

How to Know if You Are Experiencing Fear vs Anxiety

Fear and anxiety both cause similar co-occurring physiological, psychological, and physical symptoms. Though the symptoms can overlap, it’s not uncommon if you experience an independent, unique experience, either.

Sometimes, it can be challenging to tell the difference between fear and anxiety, especially when you’re actively having symptoms. Still, if you’re experiencing fear or anxiety (or both), it’s not likely that you’ll even be questioning the differences at that time.

The differences in symptom expression between fear and anxiety are centered on several factors, including:

  • Your emotional & mental capacity
  • Your available resources to help you cope
  • What event triggered your response

In short, the difference between fear and anxiety are:

Fear starts very suddenly as a fight-or-flight response to a well-defined threat.

Anxiety onsets in response to an unspecified, possibly non-existent threat.

“Working through and lowering levels of fear and anxiety are very similar. It’s about teasing out the stimuli that manifested those emotions. Understanding the stimuli reaction helps to define the next steps of working through those emotions.”

Talkspace therapist Minkyung Chung, MS, LMHC

When to Seek Help

Chronic anxiety and fear have both been linked to mental health conditions, including generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), social anxiety disorder (SAD), panic disorder, and specific phobias like agoraphobia or arachnophobia.

The National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) reports that an estimated 20% of adults in the United States experience symptoms of anxiety conditions each year. Women are more likely to be affected than men.

If you’re experiencing repetitive, worsening symptoms like the ones we’ve discussed here, and they’re beginning to interfere with your functioning and daily life, it might be time to learn about how to treat anxiety or fear, as well as go in for a screening. You can reach out to a therapist or contact a doctor to start the process. Your doctor will review your medical history and try to discern a possible cause for your symptoms.

“The two are so similar it’s hard to figure out what a person is struggling with at that moment. A mental health professional can help with learning the differences and the coping skills necessary to be successful in managing both fear and anxiety.”

Talkspace therapist Minkyung Chung, MS, LMHC

If a diagnosis is made, you’ll likely be referred to different types of therapy for anxiety and fear such as online therapy. Then, you can begin treatment and learn new coping skills to better control the chronic fear or anxiety you’ve been experiencing. You don’t have to let fear or anxiety take over your life. Get the skills and coping tools you need to overcome your fear and anxiety, and you’ll begin on the path to a healthy, rewarding life.

Sources:

1. Tovote P, Fadok J, Lüthi A. Neuronal circuits for fear and anxiety. Nature Reviews Neuroscience. 2015;16(6):317-331. doi:10.1038/nrn3945. https://www.nature.com/articles/nrn3945. Accessed February 5, 2022.

2. Jacobs Hendel, LCSW H. Anxiety And Fear: What’s The Difference? | NAMI: National Alliance on Mental Illness. Nami.org. https://www.nami.org/Blogs/NAMI-Blog/May-2021/Anxiety-And-Fear-What-s-The-Difference. Published 2021. Accessed February 5, 2022.

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