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When you have anxiety, if it can sometimes be hard to distinguish between the feelings of anxiety and fear, then the answer to the fear vs anxiety question might be “both.”
We’ve all felt both fear and anxiety in our daily life — feeling those feelings is normal, and within a certain range, they’re actually quite common experiences for most people.
But fear and anxiety can both spiral out of control when things aren’t going well, and when you feel one or both of these emotions chronically, it can become difficult to tell them apart.
Someone who feels intense anxiety may mistake that feeling for fear. Someone who’s afraid of something may say they’re anxious.
What distinguishes fear and anxiety isn’t some level of intensity — you don’t level up from anxiety to fear like you’re some kind of mood disorder videogame character. Instead, fear and anxiety have a sort of symbiotic relationship, and their attachment can cause some gray areas.
We can help you understand the difference, and how it applies to your own unique circumstances. But first, let’s start with the easiest concept to master: fear.
Boo! Did you feel that? The startling, the skipped heartbeat? That was fear — or, specifically, the symptoms of fear manifesting as a fear response.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), fear is a response to something our senses pick up on: a threat.
Whether it’s the smell of smoke, the sound of gunshots, the sight of a large wild animal late at night or a sudden hand on your shoulder, the things that cause fear are sense-based triggers that give us a surprise and activate our fear response.
The fear response is a survival mechanism. Our primal training to protect ourselves from danger kicks in to make us ready to flee or prepared to fight (where we get the term fight-or-flight response from).
For the most part, these reactions cannot be prevented. Even when you know you’re heading into a haunted house, you’re still going to get scared by those sudden appearances of dangerous looking creatures, even if you know there’s an actor within the costume.
In the same way, we can’t prevent our fear response from doing what it’s designed to do when a more “real” threat presents itself.
The reason it’s important to understand that fear is a sense-triggered response is that, for the most part, anxiety is not.
The simplest way to differentiate between fear and anxiety is that anxiety is a sort of future state of fear — that’s why it’s also called anticipatory anxiety — and it tries to guess at potential dangers down the road.
Anxiety is a fear, but a fear of uncertainty. It’s also an emotional response. Yes, fear can feel very emotional, but anxiety is a reaction to emotions.
The problem is that, while anxiety may be useful in telling you to avoid a dark street or to slow down on narrow roads, it can also misfire — essentially, it can cause false alarms.
Those false alarms can be difficult for your brain to differentiate potential threats from real threats.
For instance, anxiety about public speaking can be beneficial when it makes us prepare more for a speech. But when it makes us cancel our social events because we’re afraid of talking to groups, it has then become a cumbersome condition called social phobia and begins to meet the criteria of a disorder.
People with anxiety disorders tend to mistake fear and anxiety and use them interchangeably, and you may wonder how accurate that use of the term really is. Do they occur simultaneously?
If you’re wondering if fear can be a symptom of an anxiety disorder, it absolutely can. Anxiety disorders can cause fears of unforeseen dangers or fears of potential dangers in the future. Fear of success, for example, might bring on imposter syndrome that you're not right for a promotion.
Anxiety can essentially cause a person to be left in a near-perpetual state of fear, without an obvious, concrete sense-based signal.
But anxiety presents differently than fear. While fear may cause us to run or become defensive, anxiety causes that “shut down” or inward retreating anxiety response.
But at the end of the day, fear is a frequent complaint of people with all forms of anxiety, whether that fear is based in reality or not.
It’s present in phobias, it’s present in anxieties due to traumatic events like post-traumatic stress disorder and it’s certainly present in panic disorders.
For people with the mental health condition called anxiety, it can be hard to tell the difference between fear and anxiety — especially if you’ve been living in a chronic state of anxiety.
For the most part, it’s difficult to tell the difference between anxiety and fear from our senses alone.
But an easier way to differentiate is to try and objectively state what the source of those emotional responses is: if you can clearly identify the cause of your unease, it’s likely a fear. If you can’t identify it, or if you’re using words like “might” or “could” to identify a potential or future danger, then it might be more of an emotional response, indicating anxiety.
While anxiety and fear can both be useful mechanisms of self-preservation in moderation, they can both become dangerous to your overall well-being, health and happiness if they aren’t moderated.
Anxiety disorders are a form of mental health disorder that essentially reduces a person’s quality of life as they become increasingly consumed, hindered and restrained by those anxieties.
If you’re feeling intense fear, anxiety or other negative emotions, it may be time to seek the support of a professional who can help you deal with the anxiety symptoms and underlying causes of those problems — be they panic attacks or the physical symptoms like shortness of breath, dry mouth, rapid heartbeat and others.
There are many ways to get help with fears and anxieties that are ruining your everyday life. We offer tons of literature on anxiety disorders, their treatment, and the medications that may help. We also offer online therapy on the hers platform. If you’re ready to do something about them, consider using our resources today.
Kate Hagerty is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with over a decade of healthcare experience. She has worked in critical care, community health, and as a retail health provider.
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