In everyday language, we often use the words “fear” and “anxiety” synonymously, along with “worry,” “nervous,” “stress,” and even “panic.” We could say something like, “I’m anxious about this test” or “I’m stressed about this test” or even “I’m panicking about this test” and yet still practically mean the same thing.
Clinically speaking however, these words all mean different things. It’s important to know how each one is distinct and the unique way that our bodies may experience them.
Let’s start with stress. Stress is your body’s natural reaction to a challenge or a demand, and it can be both positive and negative. In positive stress, the brain becomes focused and alert, we can feel excited and energized, and we can act quickly and confidently. We typically do better work when we experience a manageable degree of short-term stress.
Negative stress happens when the stressful event becomes overwhelming, lasts for a long period of time, or overlaps with other stressful events. Your body remains alert indefinitely, which has a number of negative effects such as forgetfulness, muscle pain and tension, headaches, fatigue, difficulty sleeping, stomach issues, sexual problems, weight change, and more.
Fear and Anxiety
Fear is a natural and powerful response in which your brain and body react to the presence of danger. Your brain alerts your limbic system, which accelerates your breathing, heart rate, blood sugar, and perspiration. The rational part of your brain is muted and many of your internal resources are routed to your muscles and organs needed to protect yourself.
In short, your brain is activating the fight or flight response to try to save you.
For your body, fear and anxiety are strongly interrelated. The primary difference between the two is the context you are experiencing. Fear relates to a known or understood threat, whereas anxiety follows from an unknown or perceived threat.
Anxiety causes many of the same physiological responses as fear but without the immediate and identifiable threat for you to respond to. In other words, it is your body’s apprehension about what might be happening now or at some point in the future.
Symptoms of anxiety can occur in a variety of situations, and can include:
- Feeling overwhelmed or out of control
- Panic attacks
- Social disconnect
- Increased heart rate
- Rapid breathing
- Trouble concentrating
- Difficulty falling asleep
The bad news is that anxiety is the most common mental health disorder in the US. Nearly 1 out of 3 people in the US meet the conditions for a diagnosable anxiety disorder at some point in their lifetime and almost 1 out of 5 have met those conditions within the past year alone.
The good news is that anxiety is treatable. Multiple studies and decades of research have shown that counseling is a highly effective and long-lasting treatment for anxiety, including treatments like CBT, Mindfulness, and EMDR.