top of page

Anxiety vs. Fear: Know the Difference

Do you know how to differentiate between fear and anxiety? Many of my clients equate the two because they feel so similar--sweaty palms, elevated heart rate, a rush of adrenaline. But while they activate the same response from our sympathetic nervous systems, fear and anxiety are two different things and understanding what makes them different can often help us to cope.

Fear is an appropriate reaction to a clear and present danger. The elementary level example I like to use is a lion chasing you down. The lion is stronger, faster, and has way bigger teeth and wants you for lunch. Your fight, flight, or freeze response is the coping mechanism designed to save your life.

Anxiety, on the other hand, is an anticipatory reaction to something that is not clear nor present. It's a fear of something that has not materialized, and may not materialize. Sometimes it's based on prior experience (i.e., eating at that restaurant made me sick before, so I'm worried it'll happen if I eat there again). Anxiety can also be very vague or even unrecognized, a feeling directed at the possibility of losing control or "something bad happening." In this case, fight, flight, or freeze does not remove you from the source of the anxiety, which is internal. Instead it causes unwanted behaviors in your life like avoiding certain situations or places, conflicts in relationships due to internal stress, or shutting down emotionally.

It's important to differentiate between fear and anxiety so that you know how to respond appropriately. If you're fearful because you are in real danger, the first priority is your safety. If you have anxiety, your priority is learning to cope. Recognizing the sources or triggers of your anxiety can help greatly in learning how to do so. Some of the strategies that can help you cope are:

  • Identifying and addressing negative self talk: What messages or scripts run through your head? do you constantly tell yourself that "everyone is looking at you, you don't belong here, you're going to fail"? Exploring where those negative messages come from and learning to change them to something more positive is something you can do in therapy that will have great effects in the long term.

  • Learning to activate your parasympathetic nervous system: The antidote to fight, flight, or freeze is to send the signal to your body that you are not in danger by breathing, grounding, and muscle relaxation.

  • Ride the wave: Sometimes you have to let the feeling of anxiety wash over you and learn that you will come out okay after the wave peaks and crests.

  • Radical acceptance of the situation: At times, just admitting to yourself "I'm anxious about ____" can help you to decrease the feeling of dread that often accompanies anxiety, especially if you tend to cope with avoidance.

  • Exposure with safety: if there is a situation that brings you anxiety (i.e., getting into an elevator, entering a social situation), you can slowly expose yourself to those situations with a safe person or an exit plan so that you can over time build up a comfort level to those situations.

Exploring your anxiety with a trusted friend or counselor is one of the best ways to begin learning to live a freer and fuller life. If you're ready to start coping with and overcoming anxiety, reach out for a consultation today.


bottom of page