While there’s lots of overlap between how fear and anxiety can make us feel, there is a fundamental difference between the two. Fear is a useful response to a perceived threat – it helps us to survive and thrive. Anxiety, on the other hand, is what we experience when our fear response becomes out of control – it means we perceive danger all the time, even when it’s not there.
Here, we will explore the ways in which fear and anxiety are related to each other, the key differences between the two and the things you can do to overcome your fear and anxiety.
How are fear and anxiety related?
Fear can cause us to experience many of the same symptoms of anxiety. You might feel:
- A sense of worry, apprehension, panic or dread
- Feeling overwhelmed and stressed
- Feeling trapped and as though you need to escape
- Being tearful
- Anger, irritability and impatience
- Feeling dizzy, faint or light-headed
- Increased heart rate or experiencing palpitations
- Tightness in your chest
- Shortness of breath or breathing faster than usual
- Dry mouth
- Lack of appetite/increase in appetite
- Muscles feel tense or weak
- Sweating or experiencing hot/cold flushes
- Needing to go to the toilet more often than usual/constipation
- Feeling numb or disconnected
While some of the psychological and physical symptoms of fear and anxiety are the same, the core difference is that when we feel fear, it’s in response to real danger. With anxiety, these feelings happen in response to imagined danger.
Differences between fear and anxiety
Fear is a useful, evolutionary response that we, as humans, have developed in order to survive. Thousands of years ago, when we were living in hunter-gatherer groups, it was necessary for us to react appropriately to threats and be able to accurately assess whether we were safe. This is how we developed our ‘fight or flight’ response.
When we perceive something dangerous, our central nervous system becomes activated, triggering processes in the body that will either help us to fight or run. While it’s unpleasant, fear is a healthy emotion. Our fight or flight response has helped the human race to survive and thrive for millennia.
Anxiety is what we experience when our fear response becomes maladaptive (it becomes out of control and no longer serves its purpose). If you find that you’re constantly fearful and on edge, to the extent that this is interfering with your daily life, your fear response is no longer useful. This is when fear (an emotion) has developed into an anxiety disorder (a mental health condition).
Anxiety can make you nervous all the time, even when there is no immediate danger or threat. The same stress response experienced by our ancestors is triggered, except the threat is imagined or blown out of proportion.
Mental health condition
Proportionate to the situation
Disproportionate to the situation
Can be ever-present
Symptoms go away on their own when there is no longer any threat/danger
Symptoms can persist and often need to be managed with therapy and/or medication
Tips on how to overcome anxiety and fear
When you’re struggling with anxiety, the fear that you’re experiencing can feel very real. However, there are a number of things you can do to deal with anxiety and fear, helping you to manage your response in situations that you perceive as being threatening.
Recognise your triggers
The kinds of triggers that would have affected early humans are unlikely to be present in our day-to-day lives. However, this doesn’t mean that your fear feels any less real. For example, the ‘threat’ of public speaking may cause the same stress response for you as a sabre-toothed tiger may have caused our ancestors.
Thoughts can evoke the same trigger response as actual experiences and the nervous system cannot tell the difference. Memories about actual events that occurred and fears about future worries can also be triggers.
Being able to identify what makes you feel anxious is a useful first step. Try to notice the situations that make you feel panicky, on-edge and fearful. By being able to recognise your own ‘sabre-toothed tigers’, you’ll be in a better place to understand where your fears are stemming from and take steps to address them.
Challenge your anxious/fearful thoughts
Anxiety can cause our minds to play tricks on us. When you’re in a situation that makes you feel anxious, try to take a step back from the situation and really evaluate the actual threat posed by it.
Are you in immediate danger? Do you need to fight or run away in order to survive?
Asking yourself these questions might help you to put the situation into context and stop your anxiety spiralling out of control.
Look after yourself
Anxiety and fear can have a huge impact on us, physically. That’s why it’s so important to look after yourself to make sure your basic needs are met. This includes:
- Eating healthily
- Trying to get enough sleep
- Exercising to aid your mental health
- Limiting caffeine and alcohol intake
- Avoiding recreational drugs
It’s also important to try to stay socially active. Humans are social beings and staying in regular contact with friends and family is important when it comes to reducing anxiety and improving mental wellbeing.
Use relaxation and grounding techniques
There are a number of relaxation techniques for anxiety that can help. This is because they work to deactivate your stress response, helping you to calm down.
- Breathe deeply – deep breathing can help your body settle down into a calmer state. Try breathing in through your nose for 4 seconds, hold for 3 seconds and then breathe out through your mouth for 6 seconds. Find out more about breathing exercises for anxiety
- Practise mindfulness meditation – find out about the importance of mindfulness and mental health
- 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 method – this is another method for grounding yourself and preventing your anxiety from spiralling out of control. Try to name 5 things you can see, 4 things you can feel, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell and 1 thing you can taste. This will help you to bring your attention back to the present and distract you from your worried thoughts
Treatment for anxiety
When our natural fear response becomes maladaptive, it can mean that we struggle to cope in day-to-day life. However, the good news is that anxiety is treatable and it’s possible for you to get back on track.
At Priory, our anxiety treatment experts can help you to understand your triggers (your sabre-toothed tigers) and learn coping strategies to manage them more effectively moving forward. To find out how we can help you to overcome your fear and anxiety, get in touch today.
For details of how Priory can provide you with assistance regarding mental health and wellbeing, please call 0330 056 6020 or submit an online enquiry form here.