21st December 2016

Fear & Anxiety. How They’re Different & The Same


photo by David Marcu

Fear & Anxiety. How They’re Different & The Same.

We all experience fear at some point in our lives and for good reason; however, it can be a very misunderstood emotion.


Fear likes to tell us one of two things:

  1. either a situation might be dangerous and therefore we need that ‘flight and fight’ response for survival purposes.
  2. something different might be about to happen. We are stepping into the unknown and we don’t yet know what this looks and feels like or if it will be a good or bad experience.

Fear potentially becomes a problem when the messages are mixed up or when we give fear too much control.

Understanding Fear

When trying to understand fear it is important to look at what is happening in your body. Fear is an emotion we were meant to feel. It triggers the danger signals sent from the brain to the nervous system to prepare the body for action, to keep us safe and to ensure we have the energy and inclination to act appropriately in emergency situations.

Most of us are not in life threatening situations on a day-to-day basis so we rarely have to ‘run for our lives’ or ‘fight saber-tooth tigers’. However, the way our bodies respond to modern-day stresses is just the same as if we were in those situations.

A simple non-scientific way to think of it is like this:

  • The brain has a downs stairs and an upstairs, the down stairs relates to automatic responses that are designed to keep us alive and safe, so automatic functions like breathing and is the part of the brain which deals with the fight or flight responses.
  • The upstairs is the thinking brain that helps us rationalise things. It’s essentially where processed information and see the reality that allows us to regain control of our emotions.
  • When we experience fear the downstairs part of our brain takes over and sends the message ‘something is happening’ we need to ‘do’ something. Our bodies become flooded with hormones called adrenaline and cortisol which sharpen our alertness, increase blood supply to muscles and limbs, raises our heartbeats and our breathing becomes faster, all in preparation to take rapid action to keep us safe.
  • This state of high alert is only meant to be sustained for a short time and when the danger is passed the our bodies slowly return to normal as we reconnect to the upstairs brain which helps us to rationalise, think and process what just happened.

This process is a normal response to situations that threaten us and make us feel afraid; whether it is an actual threat like an attack, emergency or accident or a perceived threat such as an unknown situation like a new school, job, an exam or interview, public speaking or maybe even a date.

So fear in and of itself is not a problem. It’s normal to feel fear and fear has a very real job to do in keeping us safe.

BUT. If we give fear too much control and remain in an alert state for too long or if we are continually placing ourselves on alert this can deplete our systems and have detrimental effect on our health and wellbeing.

For example, if we give into fear because of not wanting to experience a feeling of the unknown, it can hold us back from new and exciting possibilities or from moving forward with our goals and this. So sometimes we have to keep it in check and think realistically and rationally about a situation.


Anxiety could be described as having a strong sense of unease and nervousness, a worry or fear that persists over time and is difficult to move past. It is often used to describe fears and concerns about something that might happen at some future point.

Anxiety is related to fear and has effect on the body in much the same way as fear. It tends to be longer lasting so it places your body in prolonged and frequent periods of high alert, which can result in affects on your health and wellbeing and may lead to panic attacks and a range of other physical symptoms.

There are many reasons for anxiety, it might for example be a result of life stresses, maybe too many demands all coming at once and feelings of not being able to cope or as the result from unfortunate experiences.

If you have had negative experiences within an interview for example you may become anxious the next time you apply for a job. Whatever the reason it can be difficult to manage and prevent you from reaching your full potential.

How They are the Same but Different

Anxiety and Fear both produce the same hormones in our bodies and can have the same long term effects but how do we tell them apart? One person’s ‘fear’ could be another’s ‘anxiety’.

Fear comes from the potential of a very real threat weather that’s physical or emotional. Anxiety is what you are left with after such an event. The feelings that well up inside you at any given moment or whenever you think about it are the ongoing result. The two emotions are wrapped up together and inside of one another – Fear causes Anxiety and Anxiety causes Fear.

Im sure everyone has experienced fear and anxiety at some point in their life and it has different effects on different people. It’s how we cope with these feelings that determine how we react to them in future.

It goes without saying that if fear and anxiety is seriously affecting your daily life you need to seek some professional advice.

Re-thinking fear to help reduce anxiety

How do we cope with these feelings and emotions?

Although it is human nature to want to avoid things that make us uncomfortable or to avoid the unknown, to avoid change, we cannot and arguably are not meant to escape fear completely.

In order to be the absolute best that we want to be, to reach for the things we deserve and take the right risks at the right time to live a full and fulfilling life, how do we manage our fears?

Consider how we perceive fear 

What does fear mean to you? There are now many different acronyms that look at the word FEAR and therefore how it might impact on our lives, for example ‘False Evidence Appearing Real’ or ‘Face it, Explore it, Accept it and Rise above it’.

The idea of using a different understanding of the word can help us to ‘change it up’ and keep it manageable.

Take time to breathe

Remember if you are feeling fear or anxiety your downstairs brain is running the show and thinking and rationalising won’t be high on the agenda. Give yourself time to take a breath, once the ‘danger’ feeling has passed you will be able to think more clearly and make better decisions as you begin to reconnect with your upstairs brain.

  • Take a walk. Nature helps you ground yourself back into reality and can take your mind off things for long enough to bring your stress levels down. Nature is a fantastic way of supporting physical, mental and emotional health and wellbeing.
  • Visualisations can be very powerful tools and you can find some examples in Part 3 of the ebook.
  • Breathing slowly and deeply adds to a sense of calm, although when we are stressed and pressured it can feel like the last things we are able to do. Check out the breathing exercises here also in Part 3 of the book for helpful techniques and examples for you to experiment with.
  • Do something that you love, whether this is listening to music, reading a book, cooking, doing something creative or anything else you might love, take that break and time out for yourself to readdress the balance.

Happy place

A happy place is a real or imagined place where you feel safe, secure and happy. In the heat of the moment if you can find a quiet place (toilets are always good here), or even in the privacy of your mind in a crowded room, where you can see visualise somewhere where you are strong, safe and in control of your destiny. This can help to soothe feelings of fear and anxiety and help you to find your way to a place where you can make good decisions and face new challenges with confidence. Remember your ‘power pose’ from the Life after Lessons book!

Create a character

If you do find yourself at the mercy of fear or that inner voice that stops you achieving all that you might want, try turning it into a character. You might pick an animal or a person but make sure it fits the way it makes you feel and then give it a name.

This way when the fear strikes you can great it by name and call it out, this helps to re-establish control within those moments of doubt and helps you to separate out the fear you are experiencing from the real, powerful you that embraces change and challenge.

Imagine the worst that can happen

Very often with perceived fear it is good to ask two questions; so what? and is it true? You might fear failing, or looking stupid, being rejected, maybe you do not like change or you might be concerned with what someone else thinks. Having a conversation with yourself where you consider what is the worst that can happen? can depower the fear considerably, bring about a better focus, greater perspective and help you make good decisions.

By facing the worst that can happen you can judge for yourself if the risk is worth taking. So when that little voice of fear and uncertainty creeps in ask yourself so what? What is the worst that can happen? Then what? and keep asking this until there are no more scenarios to explore. You might also consider asking is this really true? Do I know this for certain?

Many people believe that something disastrous will happen if they take a risk or experience a change, I may go to university and wreck my life, I might open my own business and loose all my money but the ‘truth’ is your do not know this for sure. Asking the question helps to ascertain if the concern is legitimate and a sign that you may need to think again or if it is merely fear of the unknown holding you back.

What’s on the other side of fear?

Think to yourself realistically, what is on the other side of your fear? Try to rationalise what you are actually afraid of and break it down into manageable thoughts. This will help you to see what it is you are afraid of and address it or realise that its potentially not as bad as you thought or that the rewards will out weight the feeling of fear you feel when you think about it.

Change it up

Positive thinking is half the battle, our minds are powerful tools and often we focus so strongly on what we do not want to happen that is what we attract to ourselves, however if we focus on what we do want then great things happen.

So how does it work? it is very simple, although does take practice, when you feel those fears and worries surface, or when you feel pressured and are not sure you can cope try some positive affirmations such as; ‘I am calm’ ‘I will handle it’ ‘I am already successful’.

Try spending some time thinking about how you can change it up with your own personal triggers, is there a better way to think it, say it, do it?

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