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What’s the Difference Between Fear and Anxiety?


Updated May 19, 2014

Fear and Anxiety Produce a Stress Response

Fear and anxiety both produce similar responses to certain dangers. But, many experts believe that there are important differences between the two.

Muscle tension, increased heart rate, and shortness of breath are a few of the physiological symptoms associated with a response to danger. These bodily changes occur due to an inborn fight-or-flight stress response that is believed to be necessary for our survival. Without this stress response, our mind would not receive the alerting danger signal, and our bodies would be unable to prepare to flee or stay and battle when faced with danger.


According to authors Kaplan and Sadock, anxiety is “a diffuse, unpleasant, vague sense of apprehension…” It is often a response to an imprecise or unknown threat. For example, imagine you’re walking down a dark street. You may feel a little uneasy and perhaps you have a few butterflies in your stomach. These sensations are caused by anxiety that is related to the possibility that a stranger may jump out from behind a bush, or approach you in some other way, and harm you. This anxiety is not the result of a known or specific threat. Rather it comes from your mind’s vision of the possible dangers that may result in the situation.


Fear is an emotional response to a known or definite threat. Using the scenario above, let’s say you’re walking down a dark street and someone points a gun at you and says, “This is a stick up.” This would likely elicit a response of fear. The danger is real, definite and immediate. There is a clear and present object of fear.

Although the focus of the response is different (real vs. imagined danger), fear and anxiety are interrelated. Fear causes anxiety, and anxiety can cause fear. But, the subtle distinctions between the two will give you a better understanding of your symptoms and may be important for treatment strategies.


Kaplan MD, Harold I. and Sadock MD, Benjamin J. "Synopsis of Psychiatry, Eighth Edition" 1998 Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins.

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