fear and anxiety

Fear and anxiety produce similar physical responses to certain dangers: muscle tension, sweaty palms, increased heart rate, and shortness of breath are just a few of the physiological symptoms you might experience. These bodily reactions are part of the fight-or-flight stress response that is hardwired into us for our survival (at least it was important for our survival when we lived in caves, less so now; today we just need a Wi-Fi connection and chargers).

Fear and Anxiety

Many experts would have you believe that there are important differences between the two, and while we might not agree, I think it’s pretty useful for us to have a peek. According to authors Kaplan and Sadock, anxiety is “a diffuse, unpleasant, vague sense of apprehension ” and is often a response to an imagined, imprecise, or unknown threat.

For example, let’s say you’re walking down a dark street. You might feel a bit apprehensive and have butterflies in your stomach, or be overcome with a sense of dread. These feelings are caused by the anxiety that is related to the possibility that a nasty stranger may jump out from behind a van and ask for your wallet, or worse. This anxiety is not the result of a known or specific threat because you don’t know for sure that there’s a nasty man lurking about.

Instead, it’s all in your head; you’re imagining that there might be a nasty man. You may argue with that, saying, “Well, I’m in a dodgy part of town that’s littered with questionable characters on every street corner, so I’m pretty confident that this is a real threat,” but it only becomes real when a man actually appears.

Then fear kicks in.

Fear is an emotional response to a known or definite threat. Staying in our darkened street, let’s say someone does appear from behind that rusty old van and holds a knife up in your face, asking for your mobile phone and wallet; this would trigger your fear response. In this case, the danger is real, definite, and immediate.

While the physiological sensations you experience in both these scenarios might be similar, your fear response would probably be significantly more intense than your anxiety response.

We can see from this example that there is a difference, but it’s pretty subtle, because if you believe that the danger is real, as opposed to imagined, then your body will react accordingly. So, is it just a question of vocabulary or linguistics? It may well be.

Think about how you describe your thoughts, feelings, and sensations in your head. Often, just changing the language we use to describe something can elicit a very different response in our bodies, which can, therefore, impact our actual experience.

Imagine you’re about to go on a roller coaster, a super swirly one that goes upside down with lots of steep twists and turns. As you sit in your seat waiting for it to go up the first steep slope before the big drop that starts the ride, how are you feeling? Excited? Scared? A bit of both? When you think about it, your physical response is quite similar, whether you’re excited or scared: butterflies in your stomach, sweaty palms, racing heartbeat.

Now imagine you have to give a talk in front of a load of people. How does that make you feel physically? Do you get butterflies in your tummy? Sweaty palms? Racing heartbeat? And this time, how would you describe that feeling to yourself? Nervous? Excited? Scared? Terrified? In this situation, the words that you use in your mind to label the physical feeling will loop back into your feelings.

So if you choose to describe the butterflies in your tummy and your sweaty palms as fear (scared, terrified), then your mind will start to seek out rational reasons why you’re right to feel fear: you might stammer or get your words wrong and look stupid. As your mind busies itself worrying about stammering or getting your words wrong, guess what? You get your words wrong! You accomplish what you focussed on.

Now, what if you described those same bodily sensations as nervous and excited instead? In your head, you tell yourself that being nervous is perfectly reasonable and that it will soon pass. In this instance, your mind isn’t worrying about messing up your words, which means you probably won’t.

Your mind never wants you to be wrong, so it will always seek and find evidence to support what you believe to be true. Hence the power of beliefs. Change your beliefs and your mind will seek and find, evidence to support those instead.

Physical feeling   > labelled by the mind   > reinforces the physical feeling

Fear (perception of danger) is quite a broad term, and we can experience it to varying degrees. For example, if we’ve got a mild or small amount of fear, we might experience that as nervousness, concern, or apprehension. Mild to moderate fear might be experienced as agitation, anxiety, and worry. And moderate to extreme fear might be experienced as feeling frightened, scared, terrified, or hysterical.

So remember this:

  • Fear ALWAYS produces an associated response of stress (fight-or-flight).
  • The degree of the stress response is DIRECTLY proportional to the degree of fear: the greater the fear, the more intense the stress response.

A stress response in the body will be triggered EVERY time we perceive we are in danger (experience fear) with each fear message producing an associated stress response. Now, even though we might not feel the effects of a stress response reaction, one is still happening. There’s no “Get Out of Jail” card here. We can’t escape it.

We will experience the stress response no matter where we sit on the fear-o-meter. Lots of people assume that we only experience the stress response with the stronger forms of fear, such as feeling frightened, terrified, or scared, but actually, we experience it with fear at ANY level. Even if you’re merely nervous, concerned, or worried, your body is under stress.

Alexia Leachman
Follow me
Latest posts by Alexia Leachman (see all)