You’ve likely experienced both anxiety and fear, but can you tell the difference between them? People often want to shake these feelings as quickly as they possibly can, but they may be more helpful than they realize.
What is Anxiety? What is Fear?
Anxiety and fear are both responses to something in your environment. Your brain interprets something as being potentially harmful to you, and provides signals to the rest of your body in an effort to help you manage that potential threat.
Those signals can vary widely from person to person, but generally, these show up as racing thoughts, increased heart rate, sweating, trembling, breathing changes, increased energy, etc. They can range in severity, but often come on quickly in response to the threat or stressor.
The physical sensations someone might feel when experiencing either anxiety or fear come from chemicals the brain produces to help you manage what’s going on. These include things like adrenaline and cortisol, which play roles in your “fight, flight, or freeze” responses.
How are Anxiety and Fear Similar?
The similarities between anxiety and fear are primarily in their function (to help you manage a threat) and in our physiological experience of them. If we focused purely on bodily sensations, and tried to differentiate anxiety from fear, it would be nearly impossible.
The severity and duration of anxiety and fear are based solely on the individual experiencing them and the situation at hand. One is not a more severe form of another, and they don’t necessarily occur together (although they can!)
They’re also similar in that anyone can experience them, and frankly, we all do regularly. Even if you are not someone who has been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder or would self-describe as a “fearful” person, everyone experiences these processes in some capacity and on a regularly basis; it’s simply biology.
How do Anxiety and Fear Differ?
The difference between anxiety and fear primarily comes down to what kind of threat a person is experiencing. In general:
Fear stems from a physical threat.
Anxiety stems from an emotional threat.
A physical threat in this case refers to something that is a clear threat to someone’s safety. A classic example used is if you were being chased by a bear or were about to be hit by a car. Your brain would be flooded with adrenaline and your brain would send signals throughout your body telling you to immediately take action to prevent harm to yourself.
Now, most of us don’t regularly experience bear attacks or find ourselves staring down oncoming traffic, so let’s talk through some examples that you might have experienced. Have you ever lost control, even momentarily, while driving? Maybe you hit a patch of black ice or hydroplaned after going through a puddle that was a little larger than you expected. It’s happened to most people at some point, and even if you recovered and regained control quickly, you likely felt a sudden pang of fear.
People often report a feeling of nausea or a “lump in their stomach/throat”. You could be feeling shaky or lightheaded as a result of the flood of chemicals your brain offered to sharpen your eyesight and decision-making.
Commonly used to refer to any fear in the fear/anxiety spectrum, anxiety can be differentiated from fear in a few key ways. The most prominent of these is that anxiety occurs when we are responding to some perceived threat that does not immediately endanger our physical safety. This can look like concerns over a relationship ending, how others perceive you, or wondering about how the future will play out.
These are things that yes, cause stress, but aren’t necessarily likely to cause you immediate harm. Even further, they don’t often need immediate intervention in the way that fear demands. If the car is coming at you, you need to move (right now!), and your brain and body will attempt to get you to do so. On the other hand, if you are questioning how you have been perceived at your new job, there isn’t necessarily anything to do.
Good fear vs. Bad fear
It might feel ridiculous to insinuate that there is a “good” kind of fear, when our physiological experience of it is, well, bad. In this instance, labeling the fear as “good isn’t about whether it is a comfortable experience, and instead refers to what it can do for us.
“Bad fear” is what we commonly think of when we recall being fearful. Things like being physically harmed, insecurity of resources, and being in generally unsafe conditions all fall into this category. In most cases, it would be inappropriate to identify these experiences as “helpful” to us in some way.
“Good fear”, on the other hand, is motivating to us. It spurs excitement and drives us forward. It may not necessarily feel comfortable in the moment, but it does have an overall positive effect on us. This might look like fearing that you might not get a project in on time so you work diligently to get it completed, or working on a project that you know is meaningful and important to get right.
Regardless of whether you are experiencing “good” or “bad” fear, your nervous system is reacting in much the same way. The key difference is that bad fear is an experience we want to find a solution for and move out of as quickly as we can, and good fear is something we have the potential to harness and capitalize on.
So, why should I keep fear around?
Keeping fear around might sound terrible, and if that’s what you are thinking, you are not alone! That being said, there are a few reasons why we shouldn’t be trying to eradicate it completely:
It’s impossible to remove it entirely.
First and foremost, there must be some acceptance that no matter how hard you try to remove it, there is no getting rid of fear completely. Humans are hard-wired to have fear on board, and for good reason. The more we try to push it away or fight it when those feelings arise, the more they become negative forces, and usually the more stress they cause.
That hardwiring we mentioned? It’s a safety mechanism that comes from years and years of evolution. The people who were more likely to experience fear were able to avoid danger long enough to pass their genes on to the other generation. The folks who experienced less fear met the consequences of those actions. It might sound blissful to move through the world without fear, but to be frank, we wouldn’t survive it for very long!
If we didn’t experience any fear, we’d do all sorts of dangerous things like petting poisonous snakes and jumping off cliffs. Without fear, you also wouldn’t look both ways before crossing the road or go to the doctor when something might be concerning.
That “good fear” we described earlier is also a key component to how we stay motivated, overcome challenges, and meet goals. There are other factors to motivation like pride, accomplishment, and purpose, but fear is a powerful motivator that is part of what has driven society to advance and identify solutions.
For example, medical researchers don’t just seek cures or vaccines for illnesses just because they can or because it would feel good to solve the problem. Inherently there is some fear driving those processes in the recognition of what happens if they can’t find a solution.
Every new driver experiences a healthy dose of fear in their first few times behind the wheel, and we should all be thankful for that! It’s this fear that motivates them to pay attention, listen to directions from those teaching them, and carefully execute new skills. Without fear, the roads would be a scary place, and there wouldn’t be any encouragement to make them any safer!
If It’s Going to Be Here, What Can I Do?
So if we’ve accepted that fear is here to stay, how do we manage how awful it can feel, and how can we notice when it’s actually anxiety that’s causing the distress?
First, there is the practical side of things. Take stock of what you are often feeling fear in response to, and assess if there is anything within your environment that needs to be changed or removed to reduce the frequency or severity of that fear. Maybe you start realizing that you are commonly feeling fear around a specific friend, and recognize that you often feel they pull you into dangerous situations. The fear may be warranted, and part of the solution might be limiting the time you spend with that friend.
Outside of specific changes to your environment, much of this comes down to how we respond to what we’re experiencing and feeling. Let’s say you start feeling the familiar physiological symptoms, your heart is pounding, you feel shaky and dizzy, and you are fidgeting and uncomfortable. How might you react?
The first option would be to immediately brace yourself for what’s to come, while trying to push away the feelings of anxiety or fear in hopes that they go away quicker. You might try to distract yourself to avoid thinking about it, or you may become quickly overwhelmed and focusing on that “what ifs” and how bad this sensation feels. Doesn’t sound very fun, or very helpful, right?
The second option is to use the sensations of anxiety and fear as information. Once you understand what’s happening in your brain and body, it can become enlightening to recognize these uncomfortable sensations as cues that something needs to change.
In the case of immediate physical threat, the solution is more obvious (run, fight, etc.). In the case of a more emotional threat, what to do with the information can be a bit more challenging to understand, but the key here is that we do attempt to understand what the fear or anxiety is telling us, rather than assume it’s all negative, or convince ourselves everything is fine.
Remember that some anxiety is unproductive worry, and information gathering isn’t just about learning to listen to see what needs to be done moving forward. Sometimes listening and information-gathering looks like collecting data on what you frequently worry about, and starting to piece together which of that anxiety or fear needs to be listened to and used productively, and which of it needs to be acknowledged, then dismissed as unhelpful.
A common thread here is slowing down and acknowledging. When you feel anxiety or fear, the sensations your body experiences can make it feel like everything is urgent. Again, sometimes it is (run away from that bear!). But outside of fear of imminent physical harm, it can be incredibly helpful to sit with the anxiety or fear long enough to understand what it’s trying to tell you.
In a way, it’s like playing detective with your own physiological sensations. Your body senses and responds to threats automatically, and then it’s your job to decipher what the responses mean, what needs to be done to help you in that moment, and how you can improve things moving forward.
Finally, our experience of anxiety and fear is largely dictated by how we talk to ourselves about it. We can learn all the coping tools in the book, but if we have an “inner bully” getting in the way, it’s tough to use them effectively.
When anxiety hits, we have the option to either beat ourselves up for experiencing it, or we can acknowledge it, collect any useful information it might provide about what’s going on, and then regulate through it.
When we think of fear and anxiety, many people assume these are thoughts and sensations beyond our control. While it’s true that they can come on suddenly and without choosing to experience them, we do have some say in how we move them through.
Given the choice between data collection vs. listening to an inner bully, I’d certainly choose the first option.