What's the Difference Between Fear and Anxiety?

Two Separate Terms

Differences between fear and anxiety.
There are differences between fear and anxiety. Photo © Microsoft

Fear and anxiety are two feelings that often co-occur, however, these terms are not interchangeable. Even though symptoms typically overlap, there are key distinctions in how each is experienced. Read ahead to get a clearer picture about the differences between fear and anxiety

Fear and Anxiety Produce a Stress Response

Fear and anxiety both produce similar responses to certain dangers. But, many experts believe that there are important differences between the two.

These differences can account for how we react to various stressors in our environment. 

Muscle tension, increased heart rate, and shortness of breath are a few of the physiological symptoms associated with a response to danger. These bodily changes occur due to an inborn fight-or-flight stress response that is believed to be necessary for our survival. Without this stress response, our mind would not receive the alerting danger signal, and our bodies would be unable to prepare to flee or stay and battle when faced with danger.


According to authors Sadock, Sadock, and Ruiz (2015), anxiety is “a diffuse, unpleasant, vague sense of apprehension…” It is often a response to an imprecise or unknown threat. For example, imagine you’re walking down a dark street. You may feel a little uneasy and perhaps you have a few butterflies in your stomach. These sensations are caused by anxiety that is related to the possibility that a stranger may jump out from behind a bush, or approach you in some other way, and harm you.

This anxiety is not the result of a known or specific threat. Rather it comes from your mind’s vision of the possible dangers that may result in the situation.

Anxiety is often accompanied by many uncomfortable somatic sensations. Some of the most common physical symptoms of anxiety include: 

  • muscle pain and tension
  • sleep disturbances 
  • tightness felt throughout the body, especially in the head, neck, jaw and face
  • chest pain
  • ringing or pulsing in ears
  • excessive sweating
  • shaking and trembling
  • cold chills or hot flushes
  • accelerated heart rate
  • numbness or tingling 
  • depersonalization and derealization
  • upset stomach or nausea
  • shortness of breath
  • feelng like you are going insane
  • dizziness or feeling faint


Fear is an emotional response to a known or definite threat. Using the scenario above, let’s say you’re walking down a dark street and someone points a gun at you and says, “This is a stick up.” This would likely elicit a response of fear. The danger is real, definite and immediate. There is a clear and present object of fear.

Although the focus of the response is different (real vs. imagined danger), fear and anxiety are interrelated. When faced with fear, most people will experience the physical reactions that are described under anxiety. Fear causes anxiety, and anxiety can cause fear. But, the subtle distinctions between the two will give you a better understanding of your symptoms and may be important for treatment strategies.

Help for Fear and Anxiety

Fear and anxiety are associated with many mental health conditions.

These feelings of most often linked to anxiety disorders, such as specific phobias, agoraphobia, social anxiety disorder (SAD), and panic disorder. If fear and anxiety have become unmanageable, make an appointment with your doctor. 

Your doctor will want to discuss your current symptoms, along with your medical history to help determine a possible cause of your fear and anxiety. From there, expect your doctor to make a diagnosis or refer you to a speciality treatment provider for further assessment. Once diagnosed, you can start on a treatment plan that can assist in reducing and controlling your fear and anxiety.



Sadock, B. J. , Sadock, V. A. & Ruiz, P. "Kaplan and Sadock's Synopsis of Psychiatry: Behavioral Sciences/Clinical Psychiatry, 11th Edition" 2015 Philadelphia, PA: Wolters Kluwer.

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