Fear vs. Anxiety

Fear vs. Anxiety January 26, 2012

Here is a simple sketch by Joseph Ledoux of the difference between fear and anxiety:

You are taking a walk in the woods ― pleasant, invigorating, the sun shining through the leaves. Suddenly, a rattlesnake appears at your feet. You experience something at that moment. You freeze, your heart rate shoots up and you begin to sweat ― a quick, automatic sequence of physical reactions. That reaction is fear.

Human anxiety is greatly amplified by our ability to imagine the future, and our place in it.

A week later, you are taking the same walk again. Sunshine, pleasure, but no rattlesnake.  Still, you are worried that you will encounter one. The experience of walking through the woods is fraught with worry. You are anxious.

This simple distinction between anxiety and fear is an important one in the task of defining and treating of anxiety disorders, which affect many millions of people and account for more visits to mental health professionals each year than any of the other broad categories of psychiatric disorders.

Scientists generally define fear as a negative emotional state triggered by the presence of a stimulus (the snake) that has the potential to cause harm, and anxiety as a negative emotional state in which the threat is not present but anticipated. We sometimes confuse the two: When someone says he is afraid he will fail an exam or get caught stealing or cheating, he should, by the definitions above, be saying he is anxious instead.


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  • Susan N.

    “But the truth is, the line between fear and anxiety can get pretty thin and fuzzy.”

    Taking Pavlov’s dog together with the marvelous human brain — which has the capacity to both look back and remember, and look ahead to anticipate based on past experience, isn’t it an especially cruel, mind-messing business, that religious doctrine of fear?

    It takes a long time to unlearn that.

  • Jennifer

    Anxiety is America’s biggest temptation.

    Todd Hunter teases this out in his new book “Our Favorite Sins”. He works off of research that Barna did surveying Americans (not necessarily Christians) asking what their number one temptation was – and anxiety won by a landslide.

    I dont think most churches have a clue what to do with people who suffer from anxiety.

  • Susan N.

    Well, I suppose you could think of anxiety/fear as an indulgence? I think, though, that this attitude lacks compassion, especially if one views pathological anxiety as a true mental illness.

    I think that some churches will be a better fit than others for someone who struggles with anxiety. I’ll leave it to the imagination which churches would *not* be a healthy religious environment for the timid and fearful.

    What to “do” with people? Befriend them? Be compassionate and empathetic? Patient, kind?

    Interesting post. We can be nice to the cool, ex-church guy with tattoos and an attitude, but not anxious people?

    I should stop talking now…

  • DRT

    I have several sayings I keep on my desk. The one applicable here is:

    “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.” Twain

    I hope that all may master their fears and not let them progress into anxiety.

  • I used to teach a seminar on the Power of False Beliefs. At the beginning of the session, I would bring in a box wrapped with duct tape and UPS stickers. I told the group this box was just shipped in an contained 1000 spiders. I had them close their eyes as I slowly peeled off the tape. I described the exiting of the spiders and their exodus around the room.

    At least 2/3rds of the students would squirm, squeal and move around in anxiety. I described the spiders for several minutes and then allowed them to open their eyes. I then explained there had never been any spiders. I asked them to think logically: How could I have found that many spiders? Who would have sold them to me? Why would I want to do that to anyone?

    Yet, even as I sought to dissuade them from their arachnophobia, people were still squirming and showing their nervousness. The belief that spiders were present and dangerous was more powerful than the spiders.

    Is it any wonder that Jesus nicknames our enemy “The Father of Lies”. If we allow even one false belief to wedge itself into our core system of beliefs, we can be manipulated by remote control. Anxiety is meaningless without belief.

  • EricG

    I have been thinking a lot about this distinction lately as it relates to cancer patients like me and friends of mine. We (naturally) spend a lot of energy anxious about potential outcomes, which is almost all wasted effort – the anxiety doesn’t help the outcome, and can make thinks unbearable. The anxiety can be almost as bad as the disease or treatment itself, and is totally self inflicted. Hard to control, yes, but still self inflicted.

  • phil_style

    @EricG, #6, even those of us in good health still have this same battle! Whilst perhaps not so pronounced, we share some solidarity in that we all lie awake at night contemplating the worst – and you’re right, the contemplation does nothing to make our situations in the present any better!

  • Susan N.

    EricG — thanks for sharing your experiences and struggles with cancer. I can only imagine the difficulty of finding a peaceful center through such a trying time.

    My heart goes out to you, and I will keep you in my prayers.

    Please don’t be hard on yourself. Self-inflicted or not, be kind to yourself on the perceived lack of self-control (e.g., high anxiety).

    May God present you with “little” gifts of joy to celebrate in each day.


  • EricG

    Thanks Susan — sorry, I didn’t mean to sound like I wasn’t be kind to myself (or others in the same position). And I agree that anxiety is a very natural response. I’ve just come across some cancer patients (stronger than me) who are able to set aside anxiety, realizing it isn’t productive, that it is self-inflicted, etc. I’ve found it very helpful to feed off the sort of perspective they have about anxiety.

  • Susan N.

    EricG — The value of a community which can empathize and encourage one another cannot be underestimated, especially in the toughest of times. I’m so glad that you have such a group. I often feel this way with my nursing home Bible fellowship group. I’m the group “facilitator”, but I am blessed so much by the tremendous wisdom and grace that those women possess. I have said many times, “When I grow up (in faith), I want to be just like all of you!”

    Part of my issue with “anxiety” is the way *some* churches with a particular type of doctrine actually increase anxiety and fear… And then, point out how sinful anxiety is! D’oh! This morning, I was reading a daily meditation via e-mail subscription from Fr. Richard Rohr of the Center for Action and Contemplation. DRT (#4 above) actually recommended this to me. The subject was “wisdom”, but anxiety due to ambiguity was talked about.

    “In summary, you cannot grow in the great art form, the integration of action and contemplation, without 1) a strong tolerance for ambiguity; 2) an ability to allow, forgive, and contain a certain degree of anxiety; and 3) a willingness to not know and not even need to know. This is how you allow and encounter mystery. All else is mere religion.” ~ from ‘A Lever and a Place to Stand, The Contemplative Stance, the Active Prayer’ by Richard Rohr.

    May God refresh and renew your spirit daily, and may His constant presence be a healing “grace” in this time of being “hard-pressed.”

    Thanks for this thoughtful interaction, EricG. You inspire me to greater faith.


  • Pat Pope

    I’m glad you posted this, Scot because so often I encounter people who want to blithely quote the scripture about perfect love casting out fear or God not giving us a spirit of fear in total denial of the fact that fear is a real thing. We have to take this real emotion and hold it in tension with the scripture and ask ourselves what is God saying in the scriptures and what does He have to say about MY situation. Quoting these verses to people as though they’re aspirin (take 2 and call me in the morning) is not helpful and often leaves people feeling defeated.

  • kenny Johnson

    I suffer from occasional panic attacks which are the product of intense and usually irrational anxiety. My wife has what she calls anxiety attacks, which are not the product of worry. She just gets an intense aggitation … that is not caused by any thoughts.

    Not sure what either has to do with the post, but thought I’d share