Anxiety vs. Fear

What is the difference?

Posted Dec 03, 2018

Bablekan, Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0
Source: Bablekan, Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

Fear and anxiety are closely related. Both contain the idea of danger or possibility of injury. They make us narcissistically preoccupied with ourselves.  

In general, fear is seen as a reaction to a specific, observable danger, while anxiety is seen as a diffuse, a kind of unfocused, objectless, future-oriented fear (Barlow, 2002). Thus, fear is anxiety that is attached to a specific thing or circumstance (Horwitiz, 2013). For instance, worries about dying are more likely to take the form of nagging anxiety than specific fear. Anxiety is also referred to emotional states such as doubt, boredom, mental conflict, disappointment, and bashfulness.

What are the actions and thoughts characteristics of fear? Fear makes people run for cover (the fight or flight response). We become self-focused and on high alert. When an individual feels threatened, fear revs up the metabolism in anticipation of an imminent need to defend oneself or flee, the pupils dilate and hearing becomes more acute so that the feared person or animal can better appraise the situation. This flowing of blood away from the skin is what makes a frightened person appear pale. The person who is full of fear may become paralyzed.

If someone becomes afraid of something, this fear has a tendency to spread to others, who in turn spread it further. This may occur even though there was initially no rational basis for fear. For example, consider the case of a stampede where a crowd of people collectively begins running with no clear direction or purpose. Consequently, the victims are suffocated as they rush down a narrow path to escape.

Anger is often is an outgrowth of fear (Nussbaum, 2018). For example, consider the mixed emotions in divorce. Husbands’ reactions are often dominated by anger. A therapeutic goal in these situations is to help them recognize that some of their negative emotions may come from sadness, hurt feelings, and fear.

In contrast, anxiety doesn’t require a triggering stimulus. It is the anticipation of a threat that is feared, and so anxiety can result in becoming chronically vigilant for potential threats. For example, a panic attack involves the interaction of the fear system with inappropriate and maladaptive learning (i.e. false alarm). Panic is marked by sudden feelings of dread and imminent doom, as well as a number of uncomfortable and distressing physical sensations such as racing heart, difficulty breathing, shaking, stomach and muscle tension, and so forth. 

This ambiguous nature of anxiety makes it difficult to overcome. If we don’t know the source of our anxiety, it is difficult to deal with the problem. It is possible to be anxious about things that will almost certainly never affect us.

Anxiety can be a source of strength. Anxious temperament can lead to better job performance. Rollo May (1953, p390) writes: “The problem of the management of anxiety is that of reducing anxiety to normal levels, and then to use this normal anxiety as stimulation to increase one’s awareness, vigilance, zest for living.”

Worriers are more likely to be more goal-oriented, more organized, and self-disciplined (Stossel, 2013). They plan effectively for unforeseen events and consequences that others may ignore. They are better at taking care of their health. In short, anxiety is productive when it is not excessive. In fact, the goal of therapy is to reduce anxiety, not eliminate it.

Anxiety is seldom pathological, even when intense, until it becomes chronic and consistently interferes with performance and enjoyment of life. When anxiety is excessive and disconnected from reality, it no longer provides an accurate and reliable signal of danger. Thus you might feel anxious thinking about an important exam, going to a dinner party where you don’t know people, or traveling to an unfamiliar place. These anxious thoughts are driven by “what if?” thinking (e.g., “What if I don’t do all my studies?” or “What if I don’t know anyone?”). 


Barlow, D. (2002). Anxiety and its disorders: the nature and treatment of anxiety and panic (2nd ed.). New York: Guilford Press.

Horwitz, AV (2013). Anxiety: A Short History, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

May, R. (1953). Man’s search for himself. New York: Norton.

Nussbaum, M. C. (2018). The monarchy of fear: A philosopher looks at our political crisis. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Stossel S. (2013). My Age of Anxiety. New York: Alfred A. Knopf