Anxiety and fear may be similar, but they have important differences. While their symptoms may often overlap, knowing how to tell them apart may help outline a treatment plan.

The emotions of anxiety vs. fear may have several similarities, but they are not the same. Fear is an emotional response to a known or real danger, and anxiety is a longer-lasting stress response to an unknown, or unclear threat.

Although these experiences share many of the same symptoms, they also have important differences that make them distinct emotions. Understanding what sets them apart can help you learn how to deal with either situation and explore treatment options.

The main difference between anxiety and fear is that anxiety does not need a specific trigger. It can come from anywhere. While fear is usually your body’s response to an actual threat or stress, anxiety and related feelings of unease may come from a perceived threat.

Fear and anxiety are related and have several overlapping physical symptoms, such as a rapid heart rate, nausea, and shortness of breath. However, it’s how you experience either fear or anxiety that can be a main differentiator.

For example, you may have anxiety about an upcoming airplane flight. You might be convinced that something bad will happen, even though there’s nothing wrong with the plane. While on the plane, there’s a lightning storm, causing you to feel fear that the lightning could strike the plane.

Typically, fear is a shorter-lived emotion with a more definite cause. Anxiety is longer-lasting and may not have a clearly defined cause. Knowing how to tell the difference between the two may help streamline any treatment you might need.

Common physical symptoms of fear vs. anxiety

Fear and anxiety have similar physical symptoms, and they cannot be clearly identified based on these symptoms alone. These symptoms can be present in both fear and anxiety disorders:

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Both anxiety and fear can be associated with other mental health issues. While these conditions may have related symptoms and causes as fear and anxiety, there are important differences.

  • Stress: Stress is a state of worry or tension caused by a difficult situation. It’s a natural human response and usually goes away once the trigger is gone. While stress may lead to anxiety, anxiety continues even after its trigger is gone.
  • Nervousness: Nervousness is usually considered to be more mild than anxiety, and has no real clinical definition. Similar to fear, nervousness usually goes away when the stressful event is over.
  • Panic disorder: This is a type of anxiety disorder that results in recurring panic attacks.
  • Phobia: A phobia is an extreme and irrational fear reaction, resulting in a deep sense of dread or panic.

Many health conditions can have symptoms that are similar to anxiety and may be hard to differentiate at times. It has also been found that anxiety disorders are more common in people with certain medical conditions, though a true cause-and-effect relationship has not been established.

Some medical conditions that are common in people with anxiety, and may also have overlapping symptoms with anxiety are:

  • Heart problems: Symptoms such as chest pain, increased heart or breathing rates, dizziness, nausea, or an overall feeling of fear could point to a heart issue. If you don’t have a history of anxiety or panic attacks and experience these issues, seek immediate medical attention.
  • Hyperthyroidism: An overactive thyroid gland can lead to nervousness, anxiety, increased heart rate, and sleep trouble, symptoms consistent with anxiety.
  • Diabetes: Uncontrolled diabetes can lead to numbness and tingling, nausea, extreme thirst, and a rapid heart rate.
  • Asthma: Like anxiety, asthma can cause chest pain, shortness of breath, and possibly panic attacks. It can even have similar triggers as anxiety, such as life stressors. However, an asthma attack will also include coughing and wheezing.
  • Electrolyte imbalance: An electrolyte imbalance can result in rapid heartbeat, confusion, shortness of breath, headaches, and lightheadedness. Extremely high or low levels of electrolytes such as sodium or potassium can be caused by medications, too much or too little fluid intake, or other medical conditions.

How to get rid of anxiety and fear

If anxious thoughts are overwhelming your day-to-day life, working with a therapist is a great way to not only get these feelings off your chest — but also create a treatment plan for coping with them.

Check out this article to learn more about finding the right therapist for you.

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Fear and anxiety may be closely linked, but they’re not the same. While fear is a temporary reaction or emotion to an actual threat, anxiety is a longer-lasting stress response to a perceived threat. However, fear can cause anxiety and anxiety can cause fear.

While the differences between the two may be subtle, understanding how to tell them apart can lead to a better understanding of your symptoms, and help outline a course of treatment if needed.