Fear and anxiety are terms that are often used interchangeably. However, while they share similar components, distinctions can be made between the two.
Fear: Fear is a sudden or immediate emotional reaction to a known threat. Fear is our natural survival response in that it activates our “flight or fight” response. This response involves the activation of the autonomic nervous system resulting in a number of physiological changes including a racing heart, rapid breathing, sweating, dizziness, sudden gastrointestinal distress, muscle tension, and more. It is thought to be an adaptive response in that it allows a person to appraise a situation as dangerous or not and then escape or fight as needed.
Anxiety: Anxiety is different from fear in that it is a more persistent mood state. Anxiety involves a sense of apprehension or worry about some negative event or misfortune in the future. It is often characterized by a negative affect or irritability. Muscle tension, headaches, uneasiness, restlessness, and butterflies in the stomach are also common. Additionally, individuals experiencing anxiety can also experience difficulty concentrating and trouble sleeping.
Both fear and anxiety have three components: 1) cognitive reactions or the thoughts, images, or expected outcomes; 2) physiological reactions such as a racing heart, muscle tension, sweating, and finally 3) behavioral reactions such as escape, avoidance, or asking for help. Each individual’s experience of fear or anxiety is subjective – one individual's expression is different than another's. While some fear or anxiety is normal and adaptive in some instances, when they are experienced too frequently or when one copes with them in a negative way, they can become problematic. If you think you are having difficulty coping with fear or anxiety, be sure to seek help.
- Kara Meyer, Ph.D.
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