Fear vs. Anxiety Part 1: The Difference Between Them and Coping Skills for Both

Fear and anxiety. These are common issues that I see a lot of as a mental health counselor. These present in different ways. For example, some individuals may come in with “stress” that is happening with something right this minute. Some individuals may come in worried about something that happens in the future. Some individuals may come in with a combination of both.

The words used to describe these situations are used interchangeably. Fear, anxiety, nervous, panic, alarm, dread, stress, etc. The type of word used to describe these situations depends on the person. Typically, I hear “anxiety” or “stress.” The word choice says a lot about the person. If the person is unsure what word to use to describe it, it often tells me they are not sure what it is they are dealing with, they just know this experience is uncomfortable. If the person uses the word “anxiety,” typically they have either heard the term somewhere (anxiety is a common word in society) or they are aware of what anxiety is and its specific effects on them. If they person uses the word “stress,” particularly in the presence of people they do not feel comfortable being vulnerable around, they may be communicating that something is wrong but do not want to communicate that the issue is anxiety. If the individual is feeling an intense sense of dread or nervousness, they may choose to describe it as “panic,” or “fear.” With all of this confusion, what is the difference between fear and anxiety?

When I was in graduate school, I had a professor that described anxiety as being about the future. Meaning, the person is currently experiencing any number of symptoms that are uncomfortable for them that has to do with a situation or experience in the near future. Examples of this can be a job interview, a presentation, meeting up with someone you have not seen in awhile, etc. So, if anxiety is about future events, then fear is something the person is experiencing in the moment that is causing the person a number of physical and mental symptoms. Most people do not know the difference between anxiety and fear. This is because the words are used interchangeably, but it is also because the symptoms of both are a lot alike.

Physical symptoms include:

  • shortness of breath
  • dizziness
  • butterflies in your stomach
  • fast heartbeat
  • feeling keyed up, tense, or tons of energy all the sudden
  • voice cracking, trembling, or shaking
  • physical trembling or shaking

Mental symptoms include:

  • thoughts
    • catastrophic (“no, this can’t happen. They will hate my presentation if my voice keeps cracking.”)
    • panic (“no, no, no please don’t let this be happening”)
    • Persecutory (“I’m NOT meant to be a presenter)
  • derealization (the feeling that what you are experiencing is not real)
  • racing thoughts
  • loss of thought process

Emotional symptoms can include:

  • panic
  • nervousness
  • sense of doom
  • dread
  • emotional distress (typically if the person associates this experience with a bad ending to the situation)
  • shame (the extremely painful feeling that you are not good enough and unworthy of something)

Another similarity between fear and anxiety is the involvement of the nervous system and, as a result, the fight, flight, or freeze response. However, this response presents differently during fear and anxiety. With fear, the threat is imminent. Happening right now. This means that the body responds accordingly depending on the meaning the person attributes to the situation.

If the person interprets the situation as something that can be done about it, this is when we take action (fight mode). Physically, our gastrointestinal system slows down, our eyes dilate, our mind works fast (typically what people refer to when they say “racing thoughts”), and the body releases hormones to help make all of this happen. If the person interprets that nothing can be done, the body goes into flight or freeze mode. An example of flight mode is the desire to get away from the situation. For example, if you have social anxiety, you experience an intense fear or nervousness around people. With flight mode, the person thinks about getting out of the situation and may even think about being at home with nobody around them. During freeze mode, the person interprets the situation to mean neither doing something about it nor escaping are possible. So, the body freezes. An example of this is the few seconds before your car crashes into another car. Your mind interprets that nothing can be done to avoid the other car and you cannot escape, so your body responds by freezing (often a slow-motion feeling). You notice that you cannot move your body. I once had a client that was in a mild fender bender and she noticed that her body felt frozen right before the cars hit each other, even though she was thinking in her mind “I need to move my leg because if the car dash crashes down on me it will crush my legs.” She was unable to move her legs until after the crash happened.

During anxiety (future based) there is typically days or weeks until the threat happens. If the mind interprets the situation as nothing can be done to help it go better, the person will engage in “flight,” that typically presents in the form of avoidance. The person will avoid thinking about the situation, sometimes even up until a few hours before the situation. If the mind interprets that something can be done about it, the person may go into what appears on the outside as anxious, perfectionistic behaviors. Frantically planning for everything they will need during the situation, for example. If the mind interprets that nothing can be done and the situation is too hard to handle, the person may feel a version of the “freeze” mode. Typically, this is temporarily feeling frozen, but most people notice that they start debating whether to just attend the situation and endure it or to cancel ahead of time.

Now that we have a better understanding of the difference between fear and anxiety, how can we cope with this? Well, I would say the coping skills for these are somewhat different.

For future-based anxiety, I would suggest asking yourself some questions. Is this situation necessary? Do I HAVE to do it for work, school, to maintain social relationships, etc? What is the goal of this and is that goal worth the uncomfortable experience? Am I overextending myself? If you find that you do not have to engage in the situation or if you have over extended yourself, not providing yourself with adequate sleep and relaxation time, I would say to cancel. If you find that you absolutely have to, the relationship depends on it (haven’t seen a friend in years), you are required to for an assignment at school or work, I would engage in the fear coping skills that I describe below.

The coping skills may look different depending on the situation. Generally, in the days before the event, I suggest a number of things.

  • Make sure you are prepared. Do you need to write a presentation ahead of time? Do you need certain clothes or other resources for this event? Anything you might need to help this situation go smoothly, get it ready and organized ahead of time. Feeling prepared reduces fear in the moment. If giving a presentation, rehearse several times before. This can tell you if the topic order you go in is correct, if you need to make any changes, and it helps your speech feel familiar–all of which reduces in-the-moment panic
  • Arrive 5-10 minutes before you are required to be there. This not only prevents the rush we get into when we don’t leave on time, which contributes to nervousness/panic, it gives you time to breathe, meditate, listen to relaxing music, pray, or anything else that helps you feel more calm
  • On the way to the event, listen to calming music. I have had clients before that blasted rap on the way to nerve wrecking events as a form of distraction. In my opinion, any type of music that hypes you up is not going to calm you. Choose yoga music, meditation music, sounds of water music, worship music, any type that relaxes you. You can play YouTube videos, download this type of music on Apple Music, and find free meditation apps such as Insight Timer.
  • On the way to the event, diffuse essential oil’s in your car. Diffusers that plug into the cigarette lighter in your car are now available!
  • Wear an essential oil necklace or bracelet. Yes, they make them! Or put a couple of drops on your wrist or neck, so you can smell it throughout the event
  • Limit caffeine intake on the day of. Nervousness combined with caffeine equals more nervousness and sometimes panic
  • Be aware of your thoughts. Are you thinking things like “I’m going to act stupid around those people.”? If you are, odds are your nervousness in the moment is going to increase as a result of these thoughts that you are thinking. I suggest thinking things like “It’s okay if my voice shakes,” “I’m doing my best and my best is good enough.” Any type of mantra that calms and reassures you will do. Say this repeatedly up until the event
  • Think about how realistic it is for your worst case scenario to happen. Anxious thinking typically stops at the “what if’s.” “what if I mess up, what if they laugh at me, what if I fail the test?” This contributes to increased nervousness, anxiety, fear and panic. Let’s follow through with these thoughts. If you do mess up, are you going to remember it a year later? Is the reaction of the people likely to be so bad they laugh at you? Most likely, no. If you fail the test, what’s the worst that could happen? You retake it? You ask for extra credit? At the worst, you may fail the class. Even then, the situation is not a catastrophe. Think about what would happen if your worst case scenario came true and ask yourself how realistic it is.
  • Reach out to someone you trust and talk about your nervousness/fear. I would suggest someone that validates you with responses like “I understand, I’ve felt that way before.” (responses like “you’ve got this” and “don’t be nervous” are typically interpreted as the person is being irrational and contributes to even more anxiety/fear). If you are validated, you will feel loved and supported no matter how bad the situation ends up actually being.
  • Engage in visualization. Visualization is a tool typically associated with meditation. Most people visualize the things that can go wrong with a situation. If you visualize the situation going smoothly, you are literally changing your brain to believe that the situation will be fine.
  • If you have done all of these things, keep your mind busy. When we allow ourselves to think negative thoughts about upcoming situations, our fear both ahead of time and in the moment increase. Do something that requires your body physically moving and your mind being distracted. This means that you cannot engage in distraction activities that are familiar. Do an adult coloring page, where your mind thinks about what to color and what color to use throughout the activity while engaging your body physically. Go for a walk (a different route than normal if you typically walk). Any activity that requires thought and physical work will do. Any activity that allows you to “space out” is not going to work

Now, for coping skills in the moment, these can look different depending on the person and situation. Generally, I suggest:

  • Pay attention to your thoughts. Mentally tell yourself that you’re doing a fine job, you can do a good job even with these feelings and sensations, you are prepared and ready, everyone screws up so it’s okay if you do, people won’t notice if your voice cracks, much less remember it.
  • Breathing techniques. Everyone breathes, so engaging in breathing techniques will be an unnoticeable way of calming yourself. Plus, it is literally calming your brain. During times of stress we breathe less and in short spurts, so breathing in for 4 counts and out for 6 literally tells your brain that you are safe, which helps you feel calm. Even if you need to stop a conversation to breathe, most people will assume you are getting your thoughts together. It’s okay to have silence!
  • Do something physical during the activity. Some people choose to click a pen, or remove the cap from a pen off and on. Some choose to use a fidget spinner or cube. Some draw on paper. Anything that physically engages your body and helps you feel more calm will do. This helps release the nervous energy you feel during the situation.
  • Take a break if you need to. If, at any point, you feel that whatever you are doing is too much, take a break. Go walk outside, go to the bathroom, take a drink of water, whatever is most convenient for you. If you don’t want to make it obvious you are taking a break for this, you can say you are going to the bathroom. Then take a couple of minutes for yourself!
  • Pay attention to what you are afraid of during the event. Is it performance based? (Wanting to do a good job, not wanting to screw up, afraid of embarrassment, etc?). Are you afraid of a person that tends to be critical? (Not all fear/anxiety is blown out of proportion. Not feeling safe, secure, and validated during a conversation makes all of us feel on edge) Are you afraid of getting in trouble at work? Noticing what you are afraid of will help you be able to tell how to problem solve the situation
  • Remember, it is normal to feel anxiety, fear, nervousness, and panic. These are normal emotions, just like happiness, sadness, excitement, etc. You are not crazy for feeling these!

In this post, I talked about the difference between fear and anxiety, as well as coping skills for both. Since fear and anxiety are such a huge topic, I decided to turn this into a two part post. Part two will discuss normal fear/anxiety vs anxiety disorders.

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