Anxiety or Fear? Which is it?

You’re walking down a dark, lonely lane on Friday the 13th.  The wind is hallowing through the narrow path as you cautiously navigate the damp cobblestone.   Suddenly, you hear what seems to be a loud crashing a few feet behind you.  A black cat howls with a deafening screech as it flees the scene.  The door attached to an abandoned building simultaneously creeks as the wind pushes it open.  Your heart is beating at a ferocious pace while your body seems to freeze in place.  Are you feeling fear or anxiety?

Could it be both?

Fear is the emotion we feel when there is an immediate threat to our physical safety or to those we care about.  Fear can also be triggered if our social standing or status is imminently challenged.  The danger is happening in the present moment.  There is usually a quick onset of the feeling of fear and the resulting physical experiences once the threat is present.  The fear will hold on until the danger has passed and will likely dissipate gradually over a relatively short period of time.

Anxiety is usually triggered by something that we perceive to be dangerous to our bodily being or social standing.  The difference is the threat is not imminent – it’s usually something we believe could happen in the future.   Anxiety can also be the associations we make in the present about something that could happen in the future based on an actual or imagined fearful situations. In the example above, if we have a “fearful” reaction to only the thought of walking at night without any intention of doing so, that would be anxiety. The key factor that distinguishes the two emotions is the presence of real danger.

Facts About Fear:

  1. Present-focused prompted by real danger.
  2. It dissipates over a shorter period of time once the threat of danger is no longer present.
  3. Observers will usually know the person is fearful by their facial reaction such as widened eyes, look of terror, etc.

Facts About Anxiety:

  1. A current emotion that’s triggered by something that “may or may not” happen in the future.
  2. Can last for a long period of time if we perceive that something “bad” will happen in the future.
  3. It may not show on our faces. We can learn to disguise our anxiety reaction.

How Are They Similar?

Our reptilian brain responds the same in both experiences.  The brain’s limbic system receives signals from the environment that there’s a threat.  It activates the sympathetic nervous system that mobilizes our body for danger.  Our heart rate increases to pump blood to our extremities.  Our respiration increases as more oxygen is needed to prepare to fight or flight. Our muscles tighten to put us on guard.  Our thinking becomes very focused so we can act from instinct versus reason.  These changes are not needed when danger isn’t imminent.

Fear helps prepare for dangerous situations.  Anxiety is not so helpful.  It causes distress, discomfort, and avoidance when no danger is present.  Those who experience chronic, debilitating anxiety can benefit from psychotherapy, especially Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.

Circling back to the story above, do you think the experience is fear or anxiety?  What information is needed to draw a conclusion?

About The Author

John R Montopoli is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor who has worked in the mental health field for more than 20 years helping college students and adults, of all ages. He uses a combination of empathy and evidence-based therapies to help his clients who live with anxiety disorders, depression, work stress, obsessive compulsive disorder, specific phobias, life transition issues, and sexual identity issues.