What’s The Difference Between Fear & Anxiety? A Neuroscientist Explains

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December 15, 2020 — 1:48 AM

The year 2020 has been defined by fear and anxiety. And while these two emotional states are similar, they do have some subtle distinctions that are worth acknowledging. Here, neuroscientist and author of The Source Tara Swart, Ph.D., explains the difference between the two and why it’s so important.

The difference between fear and anxiety.

According to Swart, fear is the most primal emotion. It’s also what she calls a survival emotion, along with anger, disgust, shame, and sadness. “They’re like primary colors for emotions,” she says, adding, “All of our feelings are combinations of the basic emotions. For example, jealousy is like love with anger.”

Anxiety (at least clinically), on the other hand, “is more a mental state,” she says. While you can feel anxious, anxiety itself is more than an emotion, as it often encompasses a myriad of physical manifestations, like increased breathing rate and heart rate, difficulty sleeping, and recurring negative thoughts.

The two go hand in hand, and fear can often prelude anxiety, but the main difference here is that anxiety is a state of being, whereas fear is an emotion. “Fear [can be included] as part of the whole cocktail of being anxious, but anxiety is made up of emotions, physical sensations, and thought processes,” Swart notes.

And when we understand what it is we’re actually experiencing, we can better address it. Everyone feels fear at some point, but if it’s persistent, chronic, and accompanied by stress and other physical symptoms, it’s possible you’re experiencing anxiety.

How to prevent fear from morphing into anxiety.

When it comes to fear, it’s always worth looking at where that fear is stemming from. From there, you can focus on building up courage and confidence in yourself, and/or radically accepting that which you cannot control. Again, fear is an emotion, so learning how to recognize, manage, and transform those overwhelming emotions is essential.

And if it’s anxiety you’re dealing with, Swart notes the best thing you can do for yourself is get the body in a parasympathetic state. There are tons of ways to do this, with Swart noting a good old forward fold (and other yoga poses) can help the body enter a more relaxed state. On top of that, limiting caffeine, eating a balanced diet, and potentially seeing a therapist if it gets to that point may be things to consider.


Fear and anxiety are closely related but not the same. Understanding the difference between these negative states is Step 1 of working through them and emerging on the other side stronger for it.


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