Both concepts, anxiety and fear, have similar characteristics, which makes the two terms confusing. You have to try to know the differences to know when it is appropriate to use each of them.
So, in this article we will talk about the differences between anxiety and fearhow the two terms are defined and what differences they show.
What are the differences between anxiety and fear?
Anxiety is a state of activation of the body, which leads to an experience in which the subject feels restless, excited, anxious. For its part, fear is defined as a feeling of anguish that appears in the face of a real or imaginary danger. In both cases, the reaction is similar, even describing the anxiety as a feeling of fear. But we must not confuse or use the two terms as synonyms, as they show differences; therefore, we cannot regard them as the same reaction.
So let’s look at these differences that distinguish anxiety from fear.
1. The stimuli that provoke the reaction
Although the reaction may be similar, the stimuli that produce it are different. When the stimulus is dangerous, like a lion, we will talk about fear; on the other hand, when the stimulus is a threatening situation for the subject, it can affect our interest, our social image… we will consider that it is anxiety. That is to say, we can consider that the stimuli that cause fear, yes, can suppose a danger for the life of the person who feels it. Conversely, the situation which produces the anxiety is not dangerous for the life of the subject.
2. Type of reaction
Related to the type of stimulus that each sensation involves. In the case of fear, as it is a reaction to a stimulus that threatens the life of the subject, the behavior that appears most often, involuntarily, is flight, running away. Or even, depending on the situation, the most suitable reactions may be to fight if we have no escape, or to be paralyzed, so that they do not see us.
Instead, in situations that cause us anxiety, we will only need a small activation for it to be functional, fulfill the function of alerting us, but allowing us to control it. Otherwise, if the reaction is very high, it may affect our performance, not allowing us to have a correct behavior.
3. Facial expression
Fear can be understood as a basic emotion, because it consists of a universal facial expression, capable of being recognized by subjects all over the world, is cross-cultural. In the same way, this facial expression cannot be learned, which means that from an early age it is shown, even blind subjects, who have not been able to see the expression, do so without problem.
Conversely, anxiety is not linked to a specific facial expression, that is, the subject may express it differently and not all cultures will show it in the same way.
This distinction and the lack of universal expression of anxiety may be due to the importance of each reaction, i.e. fear is a functional reaction, which makes us activate and act in a situation that can put our lives in danger. However, the feeling of anxiety is not an indicator of danger for our survival, we can not show it and continue living.
4. Time of appearance
One could consider that fear appears before a present stimulus, which generates in us an immediate reaction because of the threat it represents. On the contrary, anxiety often appears in the face of a possible future event. That is to say, the event has not yet taken place, but the subject feels agitated and excited about it, anticipates what may happen, in connection with negative thoughts.
With the following examples it will be easier to understand: fear will appear when we are exposed to a snake, the animal is present; instead, anxiety arises when we anticipate how we are going to feel, what is going to happen, when we present the work in front of the class, the event has not yet taken place.
5. Nature of terms
The two concepts show a different nature or highlight different components. Fear is influenced by biological components; as we have seen, it is an innate, unlearned reaction that occurs automatically in the face of a dangerous stimulus. Instead, anxiety shows a cognitive nature, the action acts to a greater extent, how the subject interprets the situation and what meaning it gives to it. Thus, although in anxiety we also observe behavioral and physiological reactions, the cognitive interpretation that is made of them is the one that will lead to experiencing anxiety.
6. Brain Activation
In both cases there is cerebral activation, but in the case of fear, being a more unconscious reaction and above all the need for a rapid response that protects us from danger, the circuit that is activated is short, reach information from external stimulus to amygdalawhich is part of the limbic system and which will give rise to the feeling of fear.
However, anxiety will require a longer mental process, cognitive interpretation and evaluation of the situation, which will take into account not only the external stimulus or situation, but also the knowledge or experiences we have had previously. Thus, by needing more time to manifest the feeling of anxiety, the reaction will not be instantaneous, as we have said, by not endangering the life of the subject, it is not necessary. As we can see, our body is wise and knows how to process every stimulus.
7. Type of processing
Since the stimulus generated by the reaction and the mental process that occurs are different, the treatment indicated for each sensation will also be different. In the case of fear which, as we have seen, arises in the face of an external stimulus threatening the subject, we will consider this reaction as functional. But when this reaction appears intensely, affecting the life of the subject, one perceives the need for an intervention.
The most effective treatment in these cases is live exposure to a phobic stimulus. The degree or intensity of exposure will depend on each patient, in order to avoid that the exposure experience is experienced as very aversive and the feeling of fear is very intense, we can perform complementary behaviors, such as breathing to reduce activation. When exposure to the stimulus is difficult, either because of its low frequency of occurrence or because of the high cost, such as air travel, one can do exposure in imagination or in virtual reality, but one must always finish by doing live shows.
However, as we have mentioned it, in the process that takes place before the feeling of anxiety a more subjective estimation intervenes, that is to say, the way of interpreting and of evaluating the situation on the part of the subject. . For this reason, the intervention on this occasion will aim to modify the thought or the way of interpreting the situation, with the aim of achieving a more adaptive thought and that does not generate discomfort in the individual.
The technique that has proven its effectiveness is cognitive restructuring, which consists of confronting the irrational and negative beliefs that the subject may manifest, in an attempt to reverse these distortions and achieve a more functional thought. Questions such as “What if?” are often used. or “What’s the worst thing that can happen?” so that the person can consider and evaluate other alternatives and realize that the consequences that may arise are not as negative as they think.
Similarly, exposure to the phobic stimulus or situation is also adequate and has been shown to be effective in reducing anxiety. For example, in situations of social anxiety, group work has shown good results so that patients can be exposed to social situations and practice acting in a safe environment.
Currently the intervention which uses a combination of cognitive techniques and behavioral It has proven to be very effective, being one of the most widely used in various disorders, such as anxiety disorders.
- Ministry of Health, Government of Spain (2020) Anxiety and the environment. Emotional well-being. Retrieved on 05/24/2022 from https://bemocion.sanidad.gob.es/emocionEstres/ansiedad/aspectosEsenciales/ansiedadYMiedo/home.htm
- Steimer, T. (2002) The biology of fear and anxiety-related behaviors. Dialogues on Clinical Neuroscience.
- Sanz, LJ (2018) CEDE PIR Preparation Manual: Clinical Psychology Vol.1. CEDE: 5th Edition.