Anxious and frightening emotions can feel the same and be easily confused. Fear and anxiety both produce a similar stress response to a real or a perceived threat. However, fear is an immediate response to a threat, whereas anxiety occurs in anticipation of a threat. Examining these different emotions can help you determine what you are truly experiencing.
What Is Anxiety?
Anxiety is a natural human emotion in response to a stressful or perceived threatening situation. Anxiety is thought to have evolved to protect us from future endangerment because it alerts us when there is a foreseen threat. This cue allows us to make the necessary adjustments and take appropriate measures to cope with the stressors or risks in our environment.
Without anxiety, we would get into trouble, make poor decisions, or neglect life’s responsibilities and obligations. While anxiety may feel unpleasant, a reasonable amount can be useful and even healthy. Short spurts of anxiety can urge us to think through our choices and actions, solve day-to-day problems and remain productive within society.
Anxiety can manifest differently in everyone. For many people, anxiousness surfaces in anticipation of an unclear threat or a future event. Sometimes, anxious feelings can emerge if you believe you are in danger but you are not. In other instances, higher levels of anxiety may be prompted by an overreaction to a threat you perceive as more serious than it really is.
These disproportionate reactions usually produce unwarranted, intense, and frequent feelings of anxiety. Consequently, these reactions are reflected in self-destructive behaviors such as avoidance of anxiety-provoking situations, obsessive worrying/overthinking, social isolation, or dependent behaviors like substance misuse or overeating.
What Is Fear?
Fear is an emotion that has evolved to increase our probabilities of staying safe when faced with a threatening situation. Fear automatically kicks in as a response to a real or perceived mental or physical menace to our well-being or safety. What follows is a series of biochemical reactions in our body. First, our sympathetic nervous system is activated. This reaction is known as the fight-or-flight response, which is deemed essential to life.
Fear is a survival mechanism that plays a vital role in managing stress and detecting hazards in our environment. Fear functions as an alerting system that can shield us from danger and provide us with some leeway to make appropriate decisions such as to stay or leave.
However, feeling disproportionate levels of fear of having a heightened sensitivity to possible threats may indicate a chronic psychological condition like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
What Do Fear & Anxiety Feel Like?
Here is a list of physical and psychological symptoms that both fear and anxiety have in common:
Both fear and anxiety include physical symptoms including:
- Rapid heartbeat and high blood pressure
- Quick breathing or shortness of breath
- Nausea and upset stomach
- Chest pain
- Muscle tension
- Dilated Pupils
- Dry mouth
Psychological Symptoms of Fear & Anxiety
Fear and anxiety both can include psychological symptoms, such as:
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Out of control
- Feeling detached from your body
- Inability to think clearly
- Impending doom
Comparing Anxiety vs. Fear
Fear produces the most obvious effects because our attention is focused on staying safe. When we are frightened, we feel agitated due to the physical symptoms associated with the fight-or-flight response. This fight-or-flight response is usually extreme and easily recognizable and is more aligned with fear than anxiety.
When we experience fear, we can also feel a sudden surge of mental or emotional distress, such as feeling shocked and overwhelmed, as well as different behavioral reactions, including aggression or violence. Fear is a protective mechanism enabling us to manage adverse or unpredictable circumstances at the moment. However, once the threat is no longer present, our fear will usually dissipate.
Anxiety can also produce similar physiological and emotional effects as fear, so it is challenging to differentiate anxiety and fear.
Fear is a feeling of alarm induced by perceived or imminent danger—whether real or perceived. Anxiety is linked to fear and is a future-oriented mood state that prepares your body for anticipated and perceived threats. It comprises complex biopsychosocial responses. Importantly, anxiety can present even when the stressor is no longer present.
Another way anxiety differs from fear is that enduring severe and extended periods of anxiousness can have long-lasting physical, mental, and emotional implications. These implications include fatigue, migraines, digestive issues, sleep disturbances, restlessness, irritability, difficulty concentrating, inability to control worries, and overthinking.
How to Know When You Are Experiencing Fear vs. Anxiety
Fear and anxiety symptoms can feel similar and can co-occur. Although these emotions overlap, every person undergoes a different experience. These differences comes from several factors: the nature of the triggering event, a person’s mental or emotional endurance, and their resources. Nevertheless, many experts believe that there are clear distinctions behind these emotions.
In sum, fear develops suddenly and is related to a known and well-defined threat, whereas anxiety arises in anticipation of an unspecified and unclear threat.
Learning more about how you respond to various stressors in your environment can help you determine whether you are experiencing fear, anxiety, or a psychiatric condition that shares common features with fear and anxiety-like anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Questions to ask yourself
Ask yourself the following questions to determine whether you are experiencing fear or anxiety:
- Is my fear/anxiety connected to something happening right now?
- Does my fear/anxiety subside once the threat/stress is gone?
- Is my fear/anxiety caused by a non-threatening situation or does it emerge unexpectedly?
- Does my fear/anxiety seem out of proportion to the actual circumstance?
- Do I experience recurrent episodes of sudden feelings of intense anxiety and fear or terror that reach a peak within minutes?
- Do I frequently experience intrusive uncontrollable thoughts that cause me fear/anxiety?
- Does my fear/anxiety keep me constantly mentally preoccupied?
- Are there certain actions that I need to perform over and over to ease my anxiety/fear?
- Does my fear/anxiety stem from a past stressful/traumatic event? If so, has it been persistent?
- Does a specific object, situation, or place almost always provoke a fear/anxiety response?
- Am I frequently avoiding certain people, places, or things that cause me fear/anxiety?
- Is my fear or anxiety persistent and interfering with my ability to enjoy life and function effectively?
In addition to the questions above, consider your risk factors when determining what may be going on with you. Things to factor in include environmental stressors, traumatic life events, family history of mental illness, a medical condition, and gender.
Researchers have found that a combination of any of these risk factors can make you more vulnerable to developing certain psychiatric conditions linked to anxiety and fear.
Getting Help for Anxiety
Anxiety disorders represent the most common psychiatric conditions in the United States, affecting approximately 18.1% of the population every year.
High levels of fear/anxiety can cause substantial distress by interfering with different life domains and potentially developing a chronic mental illness. If you feel like your emotions go beyond the normal feelings of nervousness and slight dread, talk to your doctor or find a therapist who can help you work through these tough feelings. Using a directory of mental health professionals is a great way to find the right fit since you can filter for specific concerns and needs.
The struggles you are experiencing with fear or anxiety can take an emotional toll on your overall well-being. But you are not alone in this battle; speaking with a therapist or a trustworthy person in your life can help you manage and confront these intense emotions. Don’t let fear or anxiety get in the way of living your life to the fullest.