The Difference Between Fear and Anxiety

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 commonly 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.

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.

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?

Anxiety is a diffuse, unpleasant, vague sense of apprehension. It's often a response to an imprecise or unknown threat such as the uneasiness you might feel walking down a dark street alone.

Your uneasiness in this situation would be caused by anxiety related to the possibility of something bad happening, such as being harmed by a stranger, rather than an immediate threat. This anxiety stems from your mind’s interpretation of the possible dangers.

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

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

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.

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.

Approximately 20% of U.S. adults experience symptoms of an anxiety disorder during any given year, and women tend to experience these symptoms more often than men. Because of this, experts now recommend that all women over the age of 13 should be screened for anxiety conditions. If you are having symptoms of fear and anxiety that have become unmanageable, make an appointment with your doctor.

Your doctor will consider 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.

If you or a loved one are struggling with anxiety, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

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Article Sources
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