The Difference Between Fear and Anxiety

They produce similar responses but for different reasons

Upset woman touching her head while doctor puts his hand on her shoulder

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Fear and anxiety often occur together but these terms are not interchangeable. Even though symptoms typically overlap, a person's experience with these emotions differs based on their context. Fear relates to a known or understood threat, whereas anxiety follows from an unknown, expected or poorly defined threat.

Both Fear and Anxiety Produce a Stress Response

Fear and anxiety produce similar responses to certain dangers. 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.

Muscle tension, increased heart rate, and shortness of breath mark the most significant physiological symptoms associated with a response to danger. These bodily changes result from an inborn fight-or-flight stress response thought to be necessary for our survival. Without this stress response, our mind wouldn't receive the alerting danger signal and our bodies would be unable to prepare to flee or stay and battle when faced with danger.

What Is Anxiety?

According to psychiatrists Sadock, Sadock, and Ruiz, anxiety is a diffuse, unpleasant, vague sense of apprehension. It's often a response to an imprecise or unknown threat. For example, imagine you’re walking down a dark street. You may feel a little uneasy and perhaps you have a few butterflies in your stomach.

These sensations are caused by anxiety that is related to the possibility that a stranger may jump out from behind a bush, or approach you in some other way and harm you. This anxiety is not the result of a known or specific threat. Rather it comes from your mind’s interpretation of the possible dangers that could immediately arise.

Anxiety is often accompanied by many uncomfortable somatic (physical) sensations. Some of the most common physical symptoms of anxiety include:

  • Headaches
  • Muscle pain and tension
  • Sleep disturbances 
  • Tightness felt throughout the body, especially in the head, neck, jaw, and face
  • Chest pain
  • Ringing or pulsing in ears
  • Excessive sweating
  • Shaking and trembling
  • Cold chills or hot flushes
  • Accelerated heart rate
  • Numbness or tingling 
  • Depersonalization and derealization
  • Upset stomach or nausea
  • Shortness of breath
  • Feeling like you're going insane
  • Dizziness or feeling faint

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 stickup," 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 causes 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.

Getting Help for Fear and Anxiety

Fear and anxiety are associated with many mental health conditions. These feelings of most often linked to anxiety disorders, such as specific phobias, agoraphobia, social anxiety disorder, and panic disorder. If fear and anxiety have become unmanageable, make an appointment with your doctor.

He or she will want to discuss your current symptoms and your medical history to help determine a possible cause of your fear and anxiety. From there, expect your doctor to make a diagnosis or refer you to a specialty treatment provider for further assessment. Once diagnosed, you can start on a treatment plan that can assist in reducing and controlling your fear and anxiety.

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Article Sources

  1. American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. 5th edition. Washington DC; 2013.

  2. Tovote P, Fadok JP, Lüthi A. Neuronal circuits for fear and anxiety. Nat Rev Neurosci. 2015;16(6):317-31. doi:10.1038/nrn3945

  3. Sadock BJ, Sadock, VA, Ruiz P. Kaplan and Sadock's Synopsis of Psychiatry: Behavioral Sciences/Clinical Psychiatry. 11th edition. Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer; 2015.