The Difference between Fear and Anxiety

Health Writer

Both fear and anxiety can cause physical changes. Both can activate your body’s fight or flight response. You might experience rapid heartbeat, sweating, shaking, muscle tension or shortness of breath. With both, you might notice you have difficulty focusing. When you pay attention to just these types of symptoms, you might think fear and anxiety are the same. However, there is a major difference between fear and anxiety.

Fear is the result of a threat or impending danger. Anxiety is the result of a perceived threat or danger. Suppose you are walking home from work. You are alone and it is dark outside. You hear rustling in the bushes and see a dark figure. You feel your body tense, your heart race and you feel like you can’t breathe. There is a “clear and present” danger. It is immediate, real and definite. You are experiencing fear.

Anxiety, on the other hand, is a response to a possible danger. Suppose you are walking down the same street, this time it is dusk. There isn’t any sounds coming from the bushes and the only people you see is a family walking with their dog ahead of you. Even so, you start to worry that something bad is going to happen. You experience a similar reaction: your heart starts racing, your body tenses, you start shaking. You are experiencing anxiety. Nothing has happened that would signal any danger; your reaction is from the possibility of danger.

Fear plays a protective role in everyone’s life. When faced with danger – physical or emotional – your body warns you and readies itself to defend against the threat. If you are crossing a street and a car suddenly drives by, your fear helps you quickly move to the side of the road. For a few minutes, you might still feel the effects of your fear. You might be shaky and need a little time to calm yourself. As the threat disappears, however, those feelings subside and you continue with your day. Fear can come from big moments, such as someone pointing a gun at you, or small moments, such as the fear of getting stung by a bee. Whether small or big, however, the symptoms of fear go away when the threat goes away.

Anxiety, because it comes from a perceived or possible danger, doesn’t necessarily dissipate. Your body stays on high alert, even though there isn’t any threat. When anxiety continues to flare, you might find it difficult to carry on daily activities. Maybe you no longer want to walk down the street at night. When anxiety continues, your fear of your anxiety can grow; you might avoid leaving the house at night, that way you won’t have to walk down any street and worry that someone is going to jump out at you.

Besides having an emotional impact, anxiety can create other problems. When anxiety becomes persistent and chronic, it wears your body down. Short bursts of fear might help to protect you, but a prolonged state of anxiety can put you at risk of heart disease, stroke or other physical illnesses. For some people, being able to categorize their feelings – either “fear” or “anxiety” – can help to look at the situation and reduce symptoms of anxiety.

For more information on fear and anxiety:

What is "Fight or Flight" and How Does it Relate to Anxiety?

Physical Symptoms of Anxiety

The Link Between Anxiety Disorders and Physical Illness

Coping with Fear and Anxiety

Is it Normal Childhood Fears or is it an Anxiety Disorder?