Monday-Friday 08:00am - 05:00pm
Saturday 08:00am - 03:00pm
Sunday Closed

What is the difference between fear and anxiety? And how to cope with both.

When it comes to fear and anxiety, the terms are often used interchangeably. After all, it’s not always easy to tell the difference especially as the symptoms of both tend to overlap. However there is a difference between fear and anxiety. And it all comes down to your own experience.

What is the difference between fear and anxiety?

What is the difference between fear and anxiety?

Understanding Fear

To understand both fear and anxiety, you have to understand how they cause the individual to respond. Fear elicits a response. It is a core emotion that elicits a physical ‘flight or fight’ response to immediate danger. Its biological and evolutionary purpose is to help us survive by perceiving and fleeing from danger.

We experience fear when we sense danger within our immediate environment. We may see an oncoming car in our lane, hear a vicious dog barking, smell smoke inside our home or feel an unexpected touch.

When we sense this danger, our ‘emotional brain’ (or limbic system) automatically turns on our fear response. This prepares our body for action, to ‘fight or flight’. And that preparation comes out in how we feel physically (our symptoms), which can include:

  • Increased heart rate.
  • Shallow, rapid breathing or shortness of breath.
  • Feeling ‘jumpy’ and ready to move.
  • Muscle tension.
  • Dry mouth.
  • Sweating.
  • Chills.

This stress response prepares us to be able to flee or fight the danger that we’re facing.

Understanding Anxiety

Anxiety, on the other hand, is an unsettling feeling that can occur with or without a ‘danger situation’. Unlike fear, which provokes action, anxiety inhibits a response. It stops the ‘fight or flight’ response that presents with fear. And anxiety is a reaction to something that may or may not happen, rather than a response to a perceived danger in our environment.

Anxiety is the most common mental health condition in Australia. It’s ‘more than just feeling stressed or worried’. In fact, most people will feel nervous in some situations, which is completely normal. Anxiety is when those feelings remain beyond the ‘stressor’ passing, or even occurring. Or when it has grown into something irrational or difficult to manage in our daily lives.

Physical signs of anxiety are numerous and can include:

  • A racing heart.
  • Increased breathing rate, or shortness of breath.
  • Feeling sweaty or light-headed.
  • Cold chills or hot flashes.
  • Feeling tense or achy, especially in the neck, shoulders and back.
  • Feeling sick in the stomach, a step beyond ‘butterflies’.
  • Shaking or trembling.
  • Headaches.
  • Muscle pain and tension.
  • Numbness or tingling.
  • Ringing in ears.
  • Feeling restless or having a sense of doom.
  • Sleep issues, such as difficulty falling asleep.
  • Difficulty concentrating.
  • Difficulty stopping thinking about the concern or worry.
  • Wanting to avoid situations that may trigger or heighten feelings of anxiety, such as social situations, school, university or work.
  • Depersonalisation (feeling like you’re detached from your body) and derealisation (feeling disconnected from your surroundings).

Several of these physical signs can feel like fear. But while the feelings can be the same, rather than prompting us to take action, we feel ‘frozen’ and unable to act.

How to cope with fear and anxiety

Understanding the difference between fear and anxiety is only one step in the process. If you’re experiencing these feelings, you’ll want to learn how to cope as well.

Managing fear

There is a range of management and treatment options for fears. These depend on what the fear is, its intensity and its impact on daily life. Management and treatment options can include:

  • Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) which works to challenge, then alter, thought patterns that are triggered by the particular fear.
  • Mindfulness, which aims to promote awareness of our surroundings.
  • Exposure therapy, which can be helpful when fear has become a phobia.

Managing anxiety

There is also a range of management strategies and treatment options for anxiety, some of which you can implement at home. What will work best for one person may not be best for the next person.

Management strategies for anxiety can include:

  • Mindfulness or meditation.
  • Conscious breathing such as 4-7-8 breathing.
  • Scheduling time to worry each day. During that time – perhaps 15 minutes in the morning or evening – sit calmly with pen and paper and think about all the things that cause you stress and worry. Write them down. Look at your list. Then consciously try to continue with your day or evening, knowing you can think on your worries again tomorrow. 
  • Challenging yourself to act and push through the paralysis of anxiety. Take small steps. This may just be getting up each morning to shower, eat breakfast and tidy the kitchen. Recognise that what you worry about is unlikely to happen, and that you can manage it if it does.
  • Practicing kind, gentle self-talk. Remember that anxiety is a mental health condition, and you are working each day to manage it.

Author: Di O’Malley – Founder and Managing Director of Young Minds Health and Development Network, and Counselling Psychologist.

We are here to help

If you are experiencing fear or anxiety that impacts your daily life in a way that is problematic or overwhelming, seek professional help. There’s no reason to go it alone, or to struggle through life.

Please call us on (07) 3857 0074 to book an appointment with one of our Clinicians; or send us an Appointment Request via this website and we’ll contact you as soon as possible to book a suitable time for you.