We have been looking at fear and anxiety separately over the last two weeks. We have asked, What is fear? We have asked, What is anxiety? It’s time we ask, How is anxiety different from fear?
Early on, many theorists, including Freud and Kierkegaard, distinguished fear from anxiety based on the “presence or absence of cues.”¹
What is a cue? Imagine you are at work, sitting behind your desk which happens to be facing the elevator. Just now the doors slide open, and in steps a…roaring lion!
The lion is your fear cue. In other words, if your coworkers were to ask you why you look so pale all of a sudden, you can simply point, with a shaking finger perhaps, toward the lion.
Fear, then, is a “reaction to a specific, observable danger.”¹
But let us assume that the lion never made it to your floor, having gotten off on a lower level, at the offices of some lawyers—not to eat them, but, say, to ask for their help in suing Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios.
In this scenario, there is nothing dangerous in your surroundings. Certainly no lions. But what if you feel very nervous no less?
If so, it is likely that you will try to pinpoint the source of your anxiety. Is it related to work? To your family, health, finances…to what?
The point is that in anxiety, unlike in fear, there is no clear cue. More specifically, anxiety is a “diffuse, objectless apprehension.”¹
Fear vs. Anxiety
The question is, How is fear different from anxiety? We already have one answer to this question. Earlier it was mentioned that fear is often associated with clear cues, while anxiety is not.
But not everyone agrees with this view. Pure behaviorists suggest that “all anxiety has clear identifiable cues” even if some are “more diffuse than others.” They believe that something as vague as “patterns of light and dark” can be considered cues.¹
In addition, compared with anxiety, fear is more strongly associated with the fight-or-flight response. Right now, if you are at work and if you live in an unsafe neighborhood, you may be anxious about the possibility of being physically attacked as you walk home from work at night. Your bodily reactions, likely to be mild presently, would be stronger during such an attack, should it happen to you—hopefully it never does.
Another way to distinguish anxiety from fear is related to the length of your reaction. While fear “involves a quick and acute reaction to the imminent threat (i.e., fight or flight), anxiety involves a more sustained, longer-term pattern of vigilance.”²
Another suggested difference concerns the quality of attention: Fear is associated with narrowed attention but “anxiety is associated with a vigilant broadening of attention to detect threats if they do in fact exist.”²
To illustrate the above two distinctions, consider that when you experience fear, your attention narrows on the threat (e.g., the lion or the killer) in the present.
But during anxiety, your attention instead broadens in anticipation. For example, if you are feeling anxious while at home alone at night, then every time you hear the phone ring or the wind push against the door, you begin scanning your environment in anticipation of something threatening happening soon.
This also means that your anxiety will likely remain fairly constant, with minor ups and downs as you evaluate each new cue (e.g., ringing phone). Reaction to fear, the fight or flight response, on the other hand, elevates quickly and subsides dramatically once the source of fear is removed.
The differences noted above are relative, and not all researchers agree, but with that in mind, let us summarize them (see Figure 1).
If there is a specific cue in the here and now, if the attention is narrowed and focused on the cue, if the reaction seems rational given the present situation, if the reaction occurs quickly (likely involving the fight-or-flight response) and subsides when the threat is gone…then we are likely dealing with fear.
Anxiety, on the other hand, develops more slowly and is sustained for a longer time. Anxiety is less likely to concern a cue in the here and now, and is characterized by a broadening of the attention (in order to detect any potential threats), is more subjective, depends on the probability of the occurrence of aversive events in the future and on one’s perception and interpretation of them.
1.Barlow, D. H. (2002). Anxiety and its disorders: The nature and treatment of anxiety and panic (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Guilford Press.
2. Maner, J. K. (2009). Anxiety: Proximate processes and ultimate functions. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 3, 798 – 811.