Identifying Fear vs Anxiety – And How To Manage Them Both

Both fear and anxiety can be strong and unpleasant feelings. And if you’re experiencing one or both of them on a regular basis, you might be ready for a change.

But to get to the heart of what’s going on, you might need to figure out what you’re dealing with – and identifying fear vs. anxiety can be tricky.

What Does Fear Feel Like?

When we think about fear, a variety of things might come to mind – anything from real-life danger to the fleeting sensations we experience in Halloween fun houses. There’s a common denominator to all: whether we’re being chased by a bear or “boo”-ed by a make-believe ghost, our fear is being triggered by something specific.

Our fear is meant to protect us. When our senses perceive something sudden, unexpected, or threatening – when we see a wild animal on the wooded path before us, hear the sound of footsteps behind us, smell smoke inside our homes – our limbic system reacts. This “emotional brain” signals that we might be in danger, and tells us to act appropriately.

Because true fear is in response to a precise, immediate threat, its symptoms are also acute and immediate:

  • Pounding heart
  • A feeling of muscle weakness (knees that “buckle”)
  • Sweating (hot or cold)
  • Accelerated breathing
  • Preoccupation with the threat or “tunnel vision”
  • Fight or flight response
  • Suddenly dry mouth
  • Feeling tense or an adrenaline rush

Ideally, when the danger or immediate threat has passed, these sensations calm, and our limbic system returns to its normal state.

What Does Anxiety Feel Like?

Anxiety, on the other hand, can be a much subtler sensation. It’s a feeling of apprehension whose purpose is also to keep us safe by making us aware of situations that are potentially dangerous for us.

We aren’t reacting to the tiger crouched in front of us, the fire in our home, or the masked adversary on a dark road. Our bodies are telling us that maybe – just maybe – we should be on the lookout for those scary things, instead of feeling relaxed.

This “lookout” state has its own symptoms:

  • Increased heart rate
  • Shaking hands or trembling in our body
  • Dizziness
  • Muscle tension
  • Chest pain
  • Shallow breathing
  • Nausea
  • Insomnia or other sleep troubles
  • Headaches or teeth grinding
  • Feeling distracted or on edge

Unlike a fear response, symptoms of anxiety can appear gradually and persist for long periods of time. It doesn’t disappear when the threat does because the threat itself is rarely apparent.

Fear Vs. Anxiety: What Causes Them?

Fear and anxiety come with many of the same symptoms, largely because they share the same purpose: keeping you safe.

And in theory, this is a good thing. Your body is experiencing these sensations because it’s kicked into protective gear – your senses are in overdrive, sending tons of information to your brain, which is in turn assessing the perceived danger and all the possible escape routes. Your body is on high-alert, waiting for that ultimate decision: do I stay, or do I go?

And in the case of the tiger or the masked man, the right decision is generally quick and clear: get out of there however you can!

But when the danger is less well-defined, your brain needs more time and data to come to a conclusion. And this internal process is where the cycle tends to get stuck. We can spend a lot of time feeling uneasy, uncertain, and unsafe, even when we can’t pinpoint the reason why.

It’s important to note that it’s not always strictly a case of fear vs. anxiety – the two sensations are intricately linked, and they often appear close together or simultaneously. They can both be fleeting or prolonged feelings. But our systems tend to get stuck on the “anxiety” setting more often than on “fear.”

How To Manage Fear and Anxiety

Anxiety is a response to our own emotions. And it’s a response that’s just vague enough that we humans can have one heck of a time interpreting what we’re feeling – leaving it rife for misunderstanding.

So how do we break the cycle? How do we address long-term feelings of anxiety and all of the unpleasant symptoms that come with it?

The following strategies can all work to bring us out of the anxious cycle and back to the present moment.

Work With a Qualified Clinical Psychologist or Therapist

Anxiety can stem from an incredibly wide variety of life experiences – both good and bad. Some of these experiences are clearly linked to our anxiety, but others can be trickier to determine. Whether you’re hunting for root causes, looking for mitigation strategies, or both, seeing a therapist to address your anxiety is one of the most effective steps you can take.

Through therapy, a qualified clinical psychologist or counselor can help you determine where your anxious thoughts and feelings are stemming from and how to reframe them in a useful way.

Use Deep Breathing Techniques

Breathwork is often recommended for anxiety sufferers and for good reason: deep breathing really works to lessen stress and decrease anxiety. When you’re relaxed, your breathing is naturally slow and rhythmic. When you aren’t, your breathing becomes faster and shallower. And breath and anxiety are a little like the chicken and the egg – regardless of which comes first, they are closely linked, and each plays a role in how the other functions.

You can manipulate the system by consciously slowing and deepening your breath, telling your body it’s okay to relax.

Disrupt Your Senses

Our senses are heavily involved in our feelings of both fear and anxiety. We can be triggered by that smell of smoke, sound of footsteps, sight of a wild animal – or we can sense that our boss might be unhappy with us or we’re not living up to our partner’s expectations. We might not even know what our anxiety trigger was, but it’s suddenly become clear that our limbic system picked up on something that’s made us uneasy. And now we’re stuck.

The good news is that we can disrupt the cycle by introducing another strong sensation, and a far more pleasant one! Holding an ice cube, taking a whiff of an essential oil, or listening to a favorite playlist can help bring us back to the present moment.

Don’t Argue With Yourself!

Because anxiety stems from a struggle with our own emotions, trying to talk yourself out of feeling the way you do can actually increase your anxiety, even if you’re just trying to reassure yourself that all will be well. Instead, practice self-compassion – close your eyes, take a deep breath, and acknowledge how you’re feeling, even if it seems silly in the moment.

This will give your body and mind permission and space to continue all that data processing, unencumbered by feelings of shame or negative self-talk. Very often, the result of acknowledging and clearly naming your emotions is understanding and renewed clarity of the situation you’re in.

Maintain A Healthy Lifestyle – Including Therapy

One of the best things we can do for ourselves to lessen our anxiety over the long term is to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

Fueling our bodies with the nutritious foods we need, getting (and enjoying!) enough exercise, and working with a therapist or clinical psychologist to process the roots of our anxiety can all chip away at the walls surrounding those fearful or anxious feelings – allowing us to experience them when necessary and then let them go more quickly and easily.

The psychologists and therapists at Amplify Wellness & Performance can help you work through the challenges that come with being a high-performing person – including anxiety. Our work together starts with a conversation. Reach out today.

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