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How to Distinguish Between Anxiety and Fear

Fear and anxiety often occur together, but these mental health challenges are not the same.

Imagine standing at the bank when a masked gunman pulls a gun and shouts “this is a robbery”. This known threat triggers your body’s stress response in the form of fear. Now imagine you’re at home, 6 months after the robbery and your body’s stress response is still being triggered at the thought of another robbery. This is anxiety.

Fear is a reaction to an observable danger. Anxiety is a reaction to a perceived danger.

The nature of the threat provides a clear difference between these two emotions with fear typically an acute experience while anxiety occurs over a sustained period. For this reason it’s possible to be anxious over possible threats that never affect you. Despite the differences between these two emotions, both fear and anxiety have the potential to disrupt your quality of life.

If you’re dealing with feelings of fear or anxiety, here’s how to identify your personal emotional experience and move forward.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is your body’s natural response to perceived threats. Everyone feels anxious at times, for example before the first day at a new job or leading up to an important speech. These stressful situations may lead to faster breathing, a pounding heart, and butterflies in the stomach.

In short doses these feelings can aid with survival, for example anticipating a threat that needs to be avoided. When these symptoms occur in response to a vague, or unknown threat, your body experiences an uncomfortable sense of apprehension and discomfort that can interfere with your day to day life. This becomes a mental health condition that needs addressing.

Anxiety is the most common mental health condition in Australia. In a 12 month period over 2 million Australians will experience anxiety, and with the Coronavirus pandemic increasing stressors, this figure is likely to increase across 2020.

Anxiety may manifest in physical symptoms including:

  • Increased heart rate
  • Dizziness or feeling faint
  • Sweating
  • Chest pain
  • Hot flushes or cold chills
  • Headaches
  • Feeling like you’re going insane
  • Muscle aches
  • Pins and needles
  • Shortness of breath
  • Poor sleep
  • Upset stomach

How to overcome anxiety?

Minor feelings of anxiety are natural and part of being human. Over time, unchecked anxiety can spiral into mental health disorders, with certain anxious feelings strengthened by negative thoughts. These mental health disorders may include phobias, social anxiety disorders, generalised anxiety disorders (GAD) or panic disorders.

It’s easy to think anxiety will go away – especially if you can’t identify a trigger for your feelings. Left untreated though, anxiety can worsen and become an exhausting part of your day to day life. There are many ways to overcome anxiety including mindfulness exercises, deep breathing, exercise and questioning your negative thought patterns.

The most effective treatment for anxiety is psychological therapy. Also known as talking therapies, speaking to an anxiety counsellor or psychologist can help you to identify your anxiety triggers, change your habits, and cope with the challenges of your life.

What is fear?

Fear is a natural emotional response to a known, immediate threat. For example, if someone pulls a gun on you it’s likely you’ll experience a fear response. This response occurs in two ways:

  • Biochemical reaction
  • Emotional reaction

Fear is a survival mechanism which triggers biochemical reactions out of your control. These may include sweating, an increased heart rate, and increased adrenaline levels that make you feel alert and tense. This is known as the ‘fight or flight’ response which helps your body to either fight the immediate threat, or escape to safety.

Fear also triggers an emotional response that is personal to you. Fear involves some of the same brain chemicals as happiness and excitement, which is why you may be able to ride a rollercoaster or watch a scary movie for fun.

The primary difference between anxiety and fear are the threat triggers. Anxiety is typically triggered by a subjective or perceived threat. In contrast, fear is typically triggered by an objective or immediate threat. Fear may cause similar symptoms to anxiety, and anxiety may cause similar symptoms to fear. Despite the overlapping symptoms, fear is seen as a response to an observable danger while anxiety is a response to a future-oriented danger.

Fear may manifest in physical symptoms including:

  • Sweating
  • Dry mouth
  • Increased heart rate
  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Shaking
  • Nausea
  • Upset stomach
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Fear of impending disaster or death

How to overcome fear?

Fear is typically an acute reaction to an imminent threat that lasts for a short time. For many people the feelings of fear will pass with time. However, avoiding certain places, people or situations out of fear can lead to mental health disorders such as agoraphobia, panic disorders, social anxiety disorders, and specific phobias like a fear of injections or thunderstorms.

When fear is mild, mindfulness techniques may be used to overcome the physical and mental distress you are facing. Avoiding fearful situations or places only increases the likelihood of feeling anxious if you are forced to confront these fearful situations in the future.

If you have experienced trauma that causes fear, or you’re unable to maintain your day-to-day routine because of fearful triggers, fear counselling can uncover your underlying triggers and provide strategies to move forward. Also known as talk therapy, fear counselling teaches useful coping mechanisms to ensure your emotions don’t control your life.

Will my fear and anxiety ever go away?

When fear and anxiety are triggered by everyday life, it can be a struggle to pinpoint the cause of your mental health challenges. In these circumstances it’s normal to feel like you’ll be stuck living in fear or anxiety forever. But there is help available.

Even if life is going well and there’s no obvious reason to be fearful or anxious, these are emotional responses in your subconscious that are designed to protect you – making it difficult to tackle these mental health challenges without help.

For mild fear and anxiety, lifestyle changes and mindfulness techniques may be effective. If you’re looking to reduce your fear and anxiety, read our Mindfulness Guide.

But if you feel your fear and anxiety are out of control and you’d like to change your thinking patterns, get advice by calling Life Skills Australia on 1800 870 080. Or, fill out our simple contact form to request an appointment.

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