Fear and Anxiety and How To Understand The Difference?

fear and anxiety

Fear and anxiety and how to understand the difference?

To understand anxiety,  it is really helpful to see the difference between Fear and Anxiety.  We may think that these two emotions are almost the same thing… but they are not.  And it’s possible to clearly understand the difference between them.

Just a quick background comment first… when talking about how Mindfulness can help anxiety, we are not really looking to overcome or suppress the anxiety.  It’s more that we are trying to see the anxiety clearly and to live full vibrant lives, even with anxiety.

Ok, so the difference between fear and anxiety.  There is often confusion around emotions that are similar. Being able to look within and identify which emotion is which isn’t easy – it’s something that develops by practicing Mindfulness over time.  

Here’s the main differences between Fear and Anxiety

Fear is a Present Moment Emotion

Fear is a present moment emotion. So we perceive there’s a danger or a threat or something like that, our heart rate shoots up, our breathing gets faster. And we have this extreme fight or flight kind of reaction. So it’s a response to something that’s happening in the present moment, something that’s happening right now. 

Anxiety is focused on the Future

In comparison, anxiety is all about the future. It’s all about anticipating something that could happen.  Something that could be harmful or scary to us. It’s all about imagining the things that could go wrong. Do you start to see the difference here?

Fear has a clear “bodily” reaction

Fear tends to be a very bodily reaction, like we sort of experience it in the body, as even that feeling of wanting to run away. There’s not a lot of thinking going on. So it’s not a very cognitive thing. 

Let me give you a kind of dramatic example. Fear would be where you’re walking in the woods somewhere in Canada, and a bear jumps out from behind a tree. And the reaction you have is immediate fear, which I guess would bring a strong instinct to run away (i’m not sure what you’re supposed to do… but i know my instinct would be to run!)

Anxiety is a more “cognitive” reaction

Anxiety, on the other hand, is all about anticipating and imagining the future.  It’s all to do with thinking, worrying, ruminating, overthinking. So it’s a more cognitive experience.

Back to our bear example.   Anxiety would be planning a walk at some stage in the future in the woods and becoming anxious at the idea that you might encounter a bear.   Imagining seeing a bear, anticipating that experience.  Or imagining that happening to someone you care about…

(By the way, Anxiety is a very important emotion and can protect us – i’ll write about that in another post).

If only bears were the main source of anxiety… we could just live in a bear free country !  But anxiety can be set off by so many things.  (Do you know what makes you anxious?).  Imagining speaking in front of people, sometimes even meeting people.  Anxiety about work or money or a relationship… lots of daily events can bring about anxiety.

Fear is more powerful than Anxiety

Fear is much more powerful emotion. That sense of Fight or Flight can completely take the body over. What’s important, though, is that fear is usually very short-lived. It’s powerful, but it lasts for minutes or maybe hours.

Anxiety lasts longer than Fear

In contrast, anxiety is not as strong. But if we’re worrying about something or anticipating something in the future, we can think about it repeatedly again and again for days or weeks, or months. So anxiety is not as powerful, but it lasts much longer.

The point I’ll finish with is to emphasise again that anxiety is all about anticipating the future.  The worries that come up about the future may be valid, or they may be very exaggerated.

Mindfulness can be beneficial because it can bring us back to the present moment.  With Mindfulness, we come back to the present moment, and we come back to the body. From that place we get to see things more clearly and to have more perspective.  It takes time to develop this ability… but it can be done.

So I hope that helps you to understand the difference between fear and anxiety.

In a future post I’ll share more about how to use Mindfulness with anxiety.

Until next time…


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Keith Horan

Keith Horan

Keith has been teaching Mindfulness for over 20 years in the West of Ireland where he lives with his wife and three children.
He is trained both in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition and in the practices of Modern Secular Mindfulness. He has an MSc in Mindfulness-based Approaches from Bangor University in North Wales.
Keith teaches in a gentle and encouraging way and helps people to find balance and more self-acceptance in their lives.

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