The Difference Between Fear and Anxiety

How to know when you're feeling more than just scared and it’s time to get help with your anxiety
Medically Reviewed by
Dr Hamilton
A brunette woman hides her face with a sheet, only showing her fearful eyes
Source: Unsplash

Your pulse is racing, you’re braced to run, and your eyes are darting everywhere for an exit. Clearly, you’re amped up, but is it fear or anxiety?

It’s not always easy to understand the difference between fear and anxiety — after all, outside a mental health setting, the word ‘anxious’ is often used interchangeably with ‘nervous’ or ‘afraid.’ 

But this isn’t just a matter of vocabulary. Understanding the difference between nerves or fear and anxiety can help you know when your stress response has crossed the threshold from common, protective instinct to emotional dysregulation. And understanding that is the first step to getting help to manage your emotions, instead of letting them control you. 

In this blog post, we’ll break down some of the markers and symptoms of fear as a normal evolutionary response, and we’ll also go through some of the signs that your fear might actually be closer to anxiety. And don’t worry — we’ve also got some tips for dealing with that anxiety.

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An anxious woman sits on the floor in the dark, covering her face
Source: Pixabay

Defining factors of fear

The main thing that sets fear apart from anxiety is this: fear is an emotional response to a real-world trigger, whether visual (seeing a threatening animal), auditory (hearing a loud, unexpected bang), or linked to another of your five senses.

Fear is an evolved response; it kept our ancestors safe from threats so they could reproduce, and it operates the same way for us in situations of real danger. Sure, sometimes our fear response is triggered by something that’s not a real threat, but the emotion itself is useful, even despite the odd false alarm.

The most common physical symptom of fear is a fight or flight response — the body releases hormones that cause muscle tension, increased heart rate, rapid breathing, and dilated pupils. These are signs that your nervous system is preparing your body to face a threat, either by fighting it or by running from it.

Symptoms of anxiety

Anxiety can also cause a fight or flight response, and sometimes the physical experience lasts longer than it would with fear, because it’s not always linked with a clear external threat that you can face or avoid right now.

Sometimes anxiety is about a potential future threat or worry — like when you’re up all night worrying about a big project the next day at work — but it can also be a mental health condition, especially when it’s not tied to any particular external factor.

Some of the physical symptoms of anxiety mirror those of fear, but when anxiety gets out of hand, there are indications that things have shifted into disordered territory. There are a variety of types of anxiety disorders, but the most common is generalized anxiety disorder; symptoms of generalized anxiety disorders include:

  • Oppressive feelings of worry or concern that you can’t seem to soothe, lasting for six months or more and experienced most days
  • Difficulty concentrating or an inability to answer questions because your mind has gone blank
  • Ongoing restlessness or a continuous feeling of being on edge — similar to fight or flight, but lasting much longer
  • Irritability or short-temperedness
  • Difficulty falling or staying asleep, tossing and turning all night, or other sleep issues
  • Experiencing fatigue or exhaustion more easily than usual

Anxiety diagnosis and treatment

Another important distinction between fear vs anxiety is the matter of treatment: fear isn’t really treatable, nor should it be. Fear has a place in our lives, keeping us alert to danger.    Anxiety, on the other hand, is usually less useful. Even if you’re successful on the surface and you feel like your anxiety might be a factor in your achievements (in which case you may have high functioning anxiety), the likelihood is that managing and treating your emotional state will only improve your life.   If you think you might have an anxiety disorder, it’s worth seeking treatment. Certain providers can make a diagnosis if you feel that would be helpful, but if you just want to feel better the most effective therapy (regardless of diagnosis) is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) — it’s been proven to be the best therapy for anxiety and depression.

You don’t have to live with constant anxiety. You can feel better. Our expert providers are here to listen, and our chat provides 24/7 support to help you conquer your worries and feel less alone. Check out our FAQ for more information about how we can help.

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