What is the difference between Fear and Anxiety?

What is the difference between fear and anxiety? Over the last 25 years as a professional psychotherapist, I have sat with a great many people who, in the initial session, described their “presenting problem”  as a struggle with “fear and anxiety”. For some this was accompanied by outright panic attacks, while for others it was something that had been nagging away in the background and stopping them from living their lives in the way they wished. In this 3-part article series, I will address the differences between fear and anxiety, as well as describe my own approach to assisting people who suffer from both or either in my counselling practice in Bishops Stortford.

Before we go too far however it is worth noting how many people come for counselling using these words together, or interchangeably. The words Fear and Anxiety are often used by people in describing the same difficulty, and they are used together as a single phrase. To me, this suggests that people don’t always see these two emotional reactions to life as being different feelings, but as being so grouped together they are joined at the hip. “Fear and Anxiety”, when spoken as a single phrase seem to be as connected in the English language as: Love and marriage, bacon and eggs, or Posh and Becks. Yes, I’ll admit that it certainly is true that these things do often go together, but in all cases they also exist in their own right, have their own separate definitions, and each can be experienced without the other. This is why I’ve written this series of articles to provide some clarity around these words, and to answer the question: “What is the difference between Fear and Anxiety”?

This week, we’ll discuss “Fear”. Fear is experienced as a physical, bodily reaction to immediate and imminent danger. By way of example, let’s say that at some point in the recent past, we made the (now regretted) decision to go for a tandem sky diving experience day. Right now, in this moment, we’re 10,000 feet up, sitting on the floor of an aeroplane with some guy who claims to know what he’s doing strapped to our back, and with a parachute (or so he says), additionally strapped to him. He is inching us forward towards the door and shouting instructions over the wind howling through the open doorway. Through the noise of the wind (and the voices of regret now screaming in your head), you hear him shout “when I say “GO”, we’ll slip over the edge together!!!”. Now I don’t know about you, but in that moment, I would be pretty much overcome with fear. Any second now we’re about to get shoved out of an open door of an aeroplane while praying wildly that this guy has packed that parachute correctly, and that he’s not really there on a work experience day.

A fear reaction is experienced within the body by things like a pounding heart rate, dry mouth, tummy flip flops, shaking hands and knees etc. During a fear reaction it seems we have little or no control over these physical symptoms, and our bodies seem to take on a life of their own. Depending upon their extent, things may become so bad that we can be completely immobilised. We may be literally frozen on the spot with fear. We’re having this reaction because a danger event is about to happen. It is current, imminent and most likely unavoidable. The most important two points here are the immediacy of the danger, and the fact that we are unable to control these physical reactions.

Contrast the above with something that may be inherently dangerous, but towards which we are not having a fear reaction. By way of example, let’s use driving around a busy roundabout – an activity that could result in physical harm if done incorrectly, but for which most of us don’t have the reaction described in the paragraph above. In all likelihood however, once upon a time there was a point when busy roundabouts did cause a fear reaction. What has changed?

Part of what has changed is that we are now more confident in our driving abilities. A bigger part of the answer however is that even when we do enter a much busier roundabout (Elephant and Castle, and the Hanger Lane Gyratory System leap to mind here), and aren’t necessarily all that confident about our driving abilities, or those of the other drivers, we still don’t have reactions that incapacitate us. But why not? Well, the short answer is that in such instances, even though we’re frightened, we have learned that our abilities to manage the situation are enough. We’ve learned that despite the tummy flip flops we feel as cars zip by us on the inside, that we are going to be able to manage our bodies and manoeuvre ourselves out of that roundabout safely. Essentially, we’ve learned that no matter how bad our fear reactions may be (those physical symptoms of fear the body is experiencing), we have enough confidence in our ability to perform the tasks at hand all the way through to the end, that we are not completely overcome and paralysed by these fear symptoms.

Fear can be an extremely difficult emotional reaction to manage. I’m not going to pretend otherwise. All I’m trying to do here for the moment is to clarify the difference between feelings of Fear, from those of Anxiety. Next week’s article will make clear this distinction and show how feelings of anxiety are quite distinctly different from those of fear. The following week I’ll describe how I assist people who experience both to a debilitating degree, and give some practical tips on how you can manage them yourself.