Are you afraid OR anxious – and does it matter which?

Your heart is racing. You can’t sleep. You have a headache and your muscles are tight.

You’re exhausted, irritable, and nauseous.

So, the question is, are you experiencing fear? Or are you experiencing anxiety and stress?

And perhaps more importantly is this question – does it matter if it’s fear or anxiety if you feel symptoms either way?

Neither are fully responsible for your happiness.

But either can have a profound affect on your life.

In this week’s discussion on fear, we’re looking at the relationship between fear and anxiety and how they can both impact your life.

Other posts in this series:
Is It Okay To Be Afraid? 10 Reasons the Answer is YES!
How To Identify Fears Honestly
What Causes the Fear Feeling?
Living Well Despite Being Afraid

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Fear v. anxiety defitions

The first thing we need to establish is wether fear and anxiety are actually the same thing.

Even looking at the medial and/or research definition, there seems to be disagreement. However, it is generally accepted that fear is the result of a current and known reason. Anxiety, on the other hand can be more far reaching and have its roots in something unknown or amorphous. (Source)

Fear also triggers a sense of ‘need to survive’ where anxiety is more likely a feeling of unease or doom.

Let’s look at a common source of fear for people…spiders.

A fear of spiders is a gut reaction and immediate need to escape. Alternatively, you’re not likely to feel anxiety about the existence of spiders in your everyday life.

I’d be willing to bet you don’t lay awake at night worrying about spiders, but instead worry about money or responsibilities. But you’re also not likely to face money and have a feeling of fear driving you to escape or smash that suckers with the nearest shoe (like a spider).

Yes, fear can feel like it will last forever. And anxiety can feel sharp and urgent. But when you reach those crossover points, you’re likely feeling a blend of the two stressors.

Fear and anxiety symptom overlap

So what are the symptoms of fear and anxiety?

That’s a pretty simple answer because the lists are almost identical.

  • Chest pain
  • Cold/heat flashes
  • Decrease in tear and saliva production
  • Dizziness and/or faintness
  • Headaches
  • Increased heart rate
  • Increased sweating
  • Muscle aches and tension
  • Numbness or tingling in fingers/toes
  • Rapid breathing or shortness of breath
  • Shaking and tremors
  • Sleep problems
  • Trouble thinking calmy/rationally
  • Upset stomach and nausea

For the sake of disclaimer, some of these symptoms also apply to heart attacks and/or strokes. Be sure to check with your doctor if you’re feeling a new or worse symptom than usual.

Many of these symptoms are a result of your autonomic nervous system kicking into ‘sympathetic’ mode. Or the less science-y phrase…better known as fight or flight.

When you’re in fear mode, your body takes energy away from non-essential functions to focus on survival. Things like digestion, body temperature regulation, and tear/saliva production go out the window in favor of sending more blood through your body (incrased heart rate), increasing adrenaline production, and dialating your eyes to ensure you can see to the best of your ability.

These things occur whether you are fearing for your life or living in a state of increased anxiety. With this information, you can see how it’s not only possible but factual that people feeling anxiety manifest symptoms in a physical manner.

Why it DOESN’T matter if you’re feeling fear vs anxiety

The old saying goes, “There is two sides to every coin.”

And fear versus anxiety is no different.

So on this side of the coin, we have the idea that it doesn’t matter if you’re feeling fear or anxiety.

You are going to feel similar symptoms, your body is going to be impacted in similar ways, and your mental health is being challenged by fear and anxiety.

Additionally, either reality is going to require you to take steps to manage the emotion so that it has the least impact on your happiness and life. Simply put, fear AND anxiety are complicated situations that require thought and attention.

If you’re feeling either you are likely uncomfortable and it’s just a matter of symmantics which it is.


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Why it DOES matter if you’re feeling fear vs anxiety

There is one crucial component of the two that may make it necessary to know which you’re feeling.

Simply put, they will be managed differently.

Fear is generally a short lived feeling. And as discussed earlier, it is usually the result of a specific stimuli.

Anxiety, on the other hand, can really get under your skin and camp out. It also doesn’t always have a rational and known cause.

If you’ve ever experienced an anxiety attack -also known commonly as a panic attack- out of nowhere, you know exactly what I’m talking about. You don’t know what caused it so you don’t know how to fix it. It feels like you’re dying and you don’t ‘know why.


You wake up every day with a general sense of dread and doom. No particular cause, but you know it’s bad.

When dealing with fear, after the initial rush of adrenaline and ‘fight or flight’ mode, you system calms back down. You may have the emotional feeling left over, but the systemic impact is minimal.

It goes without saying that managing the short-term feelings of fear will be different than the unknown length and intensity of anxiety.

We will be covering management of fear and anxiety in more detail later in this series.

Anxiety ABOUT fear

On last question you might have is, what about when fear isn’t temporary?

In other words, you feel a constant feeling of fear that isn’t a result of the adrenaline boost.

In these cases, you’re very likely feeling anxiety about fear. Or perhaps confusing anxiety and fear.

Let’s take go back to our example of thinking about spiders at night. You’re likely only to feel genuine fear when you’re facing the spider in its beady little eye.

But what about when you lay awake at night worried that a spider is going to crawl on your bed or in your mouth? Is that fear?

Technically yes…

It’s a known cause and you’re probably feeling the same symptoms as anxiety, to some degree.


Those feelings are more anxiety-like in that they are ongoing and not immediate. You’re also more likely to manage it in the way you manage anxiety rather than fear.

So what’s the point?

Simply that fear and anxiety can be confused and in many cases that’s okay.

But if you’re having trouble managing either, you might need to change up your strategy.

Bringing it all together

Fear and anxiety are extremely similar emotions but different enough to understand you’re dealing with two different beasts.

Yes, the symptoms can be identical.

But when you’re talking about duration and cause, you will find that fear only looks like anxiety in that it causes the same symptoms.

And the answer to the question of wether it matters which you’re feeling?

Unfortunately you get the hear the ‘wishy washy’ answer – it just depends.

It only truly matters if your management techniques are not successful.

If you’re looking for more information on fear, stay tuned for the coming weeks.

In this series, we’ll be delving more deeply into fear. Topics to be (or already) covered include:

Is it okay to feel afraid?
How to Identify Your Fears Honestly
What Causes the Fear Feeling?
Can fear be ‘overcome’ and should we want to try
Fear, faith, and what the bible says about them

If you are one of the 40% of Americans who deal with anxiety, check out this awesome resource! The confidential web portal gives you access to hours of free mental health resources AND allows you to pay for access to online therapists, which is awesome during a pandemic!

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