The difference between fear and anxiety

What's in a name? you may say. In this case quite a bit. There is a long history of thinking about these words. Anxiety and fear are feelings or emotions.

1. There are people who believe that giving different meanings to fear and anxiety is hair-splitting, and that it's better to agree that they broadly mean the same thing - whilst respecting others who don't see it that way. There are a number of other words with different nuances, similar to anxiety and fear, such as worry, concern, panic, dread, angst, and phobia, which to some just reinforces the idea of one big range of emotions, amongst which it is difficult to choose which words to prefer.

2. Two differences which I'll mention but not pursue are the idea that there is a time dimension, with fear being more short-lived and present-focused, whereas anxiety is more long-lasting and focused on the future; and the originally psychoanalytic idea that fear would have to be consciously experienced, whereas anxiety is likely to have more diffuse and probably unconscious roots, so that anxiety would influence our actions, and make us avoid things or people, without even being aware of it.

3. I will write a bit longer about what is at the moment a widely held psychological view about differentiating anxiety and fear that is widely used by many psychotherapists, and has some backing in physiology and neuroscience.

The main distinction: fear

Fear is an emotion induced by a specific perceived threat of some kind of danger or harm in the present, characterised by strong arousal and action tendencies, usually held to include fight, flight, and in extreme cases a freeze or paralysis response. The response may also be described as a panic response.

The main distinction: anxiety

Anxiety is an emotion, or a broader and longer-term state including emotion, related to a situation that is perceived as uncontrollable, unavoidable, unpredictable, and usually about the future, which may be about something that is only potentially and not currently aversive and that might not even be real. Its corresponding action tendency is interruption of the current behaviour and refocusing of attention on the possible sources of the future threat.

The makers of this distinction usually believe that anxiety and fear so described are using different brain systems and involve different sets of neurochemistry, neurotransmitters and hormones. Anxiety would mobilize the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system, fear the parasympathetic branch. Despite these distinctions, it is clear that anxiety and fear are not completely independent of each other, but interact in complicated ways.

The fear system is related to the human need for social bonds and being connected to other living beings, whereas the anxiety system starts out objectless.

Much modern thinking would also support the idea that anxiety and fear as defined here are evolutionarily acquired systems, that people (and animals) are born with them, and that they should be counted amongst the (short) list of basic emotions. Major researchers involved with these ideas are Jaak Panksepp and David Barlow.

The benefit of fear and anxiety

What use are these distinctions? A few ideas:

  • The distinction can help us understand better what is going on inside ourself and others.
  • The two systems respond differently to drugs, so they may be a guide for understanding why certain drugs would have an impact.
  • They give important pointers what to focus on in psychotherapeutic work, or in self-reflection, depending on which system is mainly involved.

Anxiety and fear are amongst the most basic systems that we are all born with. At best what we all like to learn is to understand and to regulate them better. Living without fear or anxiety is impossible and would do us harm. They are essential emotions for keeping us in touch with dangers outside and inside, and what is good and bad for us. They cannot be blindly followed, but need to be there to help and guide us.