Fear vs. Anxiety: What Is The Difference Between Fear & Anxiety?

Fear and anxiety are common responses that most people experience at some point in their lives. And while these emotions can make us feel uncomfortable, they can be appropriate in certain circumstances and situations like emergencies.

Indeed, fear and anxiety have evolved to help humans avoid danger and navigate potentially dangerous situations. However, persistent fear or anxiety can have a negative impact on daily living and our health.

And although they’re similar, there are some important differences between fear and anxiety.  

Anxiety is characterized by excessive fear of a perceived or real threat such as with school or job performance.  An anxiety disorder may occur when the anxiety persists or leads to disruptions in social or occupational functioning.

On the other hand, fear is an acute response to a specific trigger present in the environment or to an imagined threat in your mind. Usually, symptoms of fear dissipate quickly after the threat is removed or you psychologically disarm the fear in your mind.

Along with being shorter-lasting, fear includes acute physical symptoms resulting from the fight or flight response. Anxiety can present with physical symptoms too, but it can also be associated with depression and there may not be a specific threat that you can identify as the cause at that moment. [i]

To summarize, fear tends to be associated with a specific threat, while anxiety can include fear, but can also present without any obvious danger or threat in your immediate environment. For example, you could wake up in the morning feeling very anxious without any obvious threat.

Understanding fear and anxiety will help you identify how anxiety differs from fear and how to tell which one you are in the grips of so that you can better address it.

For more than 40 years, the Drake Institute has helped patients reduce and/or resolve their symptoms related to fear and anxiety, including PTSD, panic attacks, insomnia, and other stress-related conditions.  

In this article, we’ll explain the major distinctions between fear and anxiety as well as how our non-drug treatment protocols can help you free yourself from being dominated by fear and anxiety.  

For more information regarding our non-drug treatment protocols, call us at 800-700-4233 or fill out the contact form.

What Is Anxiety?

Primarily, anxiety is characterized by disproportionate worry or apprehension. It is usually triggered by a stressful event, such as a divorce, the death of a loved one, an intense social situation, etc. Anxiety may dissipate with time, particularly with treatment. But when anxiety-related feelings become chronic, even without further triggers, they can develop a life of their own and your brain can literally become stuck in that pattern. [ii]

Should the anxiety persist for an extended period of time or be so overwhelming that it interferes with social or occupational functioning, then you may be at the grips of an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders are “disorders that share features of excessive fear and anxiety and related behavioral disturbances,” according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V).[iii]

Symptoms Of Anxiety Disorders

Chronic anxiety means you are in a constant state of fight-or-flight readiness. You may feel on edge, nervous, “waiting for the next shoe to drop”, or “on thin ice”. When you’re in the grips of a chronic anxiety disorder, you’re using up a lot of excess energy, so fatigue can be common.

You might even experience unpleasant physical symptoms like nausea, and abdominal or chest discomfort.

These symptoms can negatively impact day-to-day life and make working, socializing, or studying extra challenging. Below are some of the most common anxiety symptoms in children and adults.[iv]

Physical Symptoms of Anxiety

  • Digestive dysfunction
  • Easily fatigued
  • Restlessness
  • Muscle tension in neck and shoulder
  • Somatic symptoms (sweating, nausea, diarrhea)
  • Frequent urination
  • Bruxism (teeth grinding or clenching)
  • Headaches
  • Cold or sweaty hands
  • Palpitations (heart pounding)
  • Tachycardia (elevated heart rate)
  • High blood pressure
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness
  • Light-headedness
  • Hyperventilating
  • Trembling

Anxiety Symptoms in Adults

  • Disturbed sleep (falling or staying asleep)
  • Irritability
  • Feeling on edge
  • Emotional over-reactivity
  • Easily fatigued
  • Racing thoughts
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Debilitating fear
  • Excessive worrying
  • Anticipating the worst
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Social avoidance
  • Low self-image
  • Unrelieved or chronic self-doubt
  • Inner restlessness
  • Phobias
  • Substance abuse (self-medicating symptoms)

Anxiety Symptoms in Children

  • Stomach aches
  • Chronic indigestion
  • Clinging behavior
  • Fear of separation from parents
  • Refusal to go to school
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Temper tantrums
  • Fear and avoidance of social situations
  • Headaches
  • Fear of sleeping alone
  • Disturbed sleep
  • Nightmares

What Causes Anxiety?

When the brain feels like you are in danger, it sends the body into fight-or-flight mode. During this state, blood sugar goes up, heart rate and blood pressure increase, and muscles contract to prepare the body for a physical emergency.

Anxiety occurs when the brain incorrectly interprets a situation as a much greater threat than it really is. Past traumatic memories can discolor the way we are experiencing our day-to-day life. Keeping the body on guard at all times results in unpleasant physical symptoms, such as feeling nervous or jittery.

Once we helped a patient with panic attacks that she developed when she was a prisoner in Auschwitz Concentration Camp. The problem was she was still having the same panic attacks 40 years later in Los Angeles. Fortunately, using our treatment of Biofeedback and Neurofeedback, she learned to disarm her limbic fight or flight response and was able to overcome her panic disorder. She was able to truly achieve a higher and more peaceful quality of life.

When Does Anxiety Become A Disorder?

Short-lived anxiety is normal in appropriate situations. If it is overwhelming it can compromise our abilities to effectively deal with stressful events or challenges, and if the anxiety persists chronically after the stressful stimulus then it can evolve into an anxiety disorder.

The more disruptive the anxiety is to daily life, the more likely it has evolved into an anxiety disorder.

What Is Fear?

Fear is a response to a perceived threat, whether that threat is real or symbolic. Imagine you’re driving to the airport to pick up a friend, and you suddenly hit a traffic jam – you instantaneously experience a stress reaction with fear as your blood pressure increases, your chest tightens, etc.

Your automatic emotional reaction to the thought that you’re going to be late is what triggers the fear response. There is no physical threat in this situation, but the fear response is still triggered and can dominate your experience.

 Our perceptions can be discolored by past traumatic memories or experiences, predisposing an individual to fear reactions.  

When it comes to anxiety vs. fear, it’s important to remember that fear can also be described as an acute and heightened sense of anxiety. Sometimes the fear has no obvious cause, such as having a panic attack “out of the blue”.

Symptoms Of Fear

The symptoms of fear are similar to anxiety symptoms. However, fear is an acute response to an immediate trigger, so symptoms will come suddenly. They often dissipate once the trigger or threat has been removed or resolved. As with anxiety symptoms, symptoms of fear are due to the fight-or-flight response. [v]

The most common symptoms of fear include:

  • Increased heart rate
  • Faster breathing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Excessive sweating
  • Chills
  • Trembling muscles
  • Chest pain
  • Dry mouth
  • Upset stomach
  • Nausea

What Causes Us To Be Afraid?

Fear is caused by a real or imagined threat. Fear can also arise when there is a threat of emotional or psychological harm, in addition to physical harm.

Things that commonly cause us to be afraid include stimuli such as disapproval and rejection, financial issues, illness, loss of loved ones, etc.

How To Tell The Difference Between Fear & Anxiety

So, what’s the major distinction between fear and anxiety?

In general, the fear response comes on suddenly after exposure to a well-defined threat. For instance, if a spider falls from the ceiling in front of you, you’ll likely experience fear rather quickly. Your heart rate may suddenly speed up, your face may feel flushed, etc.

Anxiety differs from fear in that it is a more persistent response that you can feel throughout the day or over a longer period, even up to years. For example, after you were frightened by the falling spider, you may experience anxiety when you walk into that same area again. Your brain may be anticipating another spider to drop in front of you again at any time, so it puts you on edge.

That said, anxiety doesn’t always have a clearly identified cause or trigger. Some people are predisposed or conditioned to be anxious and may thus experience anxiety as a baseline emotion that negatively impacts the quality of their life.

How To Deal With Fear & Anxiety

Because there are so many emotional and physical symptoms related to fear and anxiety, dealing with these emotional responses may require purposeful effort. Usually, fear disappears when the threat has been cleared or when you no longer feel in danger. If the feeling is taking longer to go away, despite no present threat, deep breathing exercises and mindfulness can help.

Anxiety can be more complex to resolve as there may not be a distinct or clear and present danger associated with the feeling. Understanding that anxiety is essentially a fight or flight response is an important first step to being helped. Take time to recognize that you are not in immediate life-or-death danger and do slow diaphragmatic breathing. Ask yourself what might be causing the anxiety. Do you have an upcoming presentation? Have you gone through a stressful life event? Identifying the cause of the anxious feelings can help you reduce their intensity.

How The Drake Institute Treats Anxiety & Fear

For decades, the Drake Institute has used biofeedback, qEEG brain mapping, and neurofeedback to treat various fear and anxiety-related disorders, including PTSD, panic disorder, anxiety, and insomnia.

Our uniquely designed treatment protocols treat the root of the symptoms - brain dysregulation - to help patients experience a reduction of symptoms and an increased quality of life. Here’s how we do it:


Stress testing with biofeedback instrumentation can identify any excessive levels of psychophysiological tension resulting from anxiety or stress. To relieve anxiety and fear-related symptoms, the Drake Institute uses multiple treatment technologies, such as:

  • EMG (Electromyographic) Biofeedback to reduce muscle tension
  • Heart Rate Variability Biofeedback
  • GSR (Galvanic skin response) Biofeedback
  • Hand Warming Biofeedback for sympathetic nervous system relaxation
  • EEG Biofeedback (Neurofeedback) with alpha and theta brainwave training

Brain Mapping

Brain mapping is the first step in treating brain-based disorders. It consists of measuring and recording the patient’s brainwave activity with specialized sensors. There are no drugs administered, and the process is non-invasive. 19 sensors are placed around specific areas on the head to monitor brainwave activity.

The brainwave recordings are processed through a QEEG normative database to identify regions or brain networks that are dysregulated and linked to symptoms. This enables our Medical Director to develop a custom protocol for treating each individual patient.


Following biofeedback treatment, neurofeedback is the next step in treating brain-based disorders like anxiety and fear. In this process, the sensors are placed on the patient’s scalp to record brainwave activity that the patient is made aware of through visual and auditory feedback which enables them to improve brainwave activity to healthier more functional patterns.

Just like brain mapping, neurofeedback is non-invasive and non-drug, making it safe for children and adults with any number of brain dysregulation disorders.


In addition to neurofeedback, neurostimulation may be added, guided by qEEG brain map findings, to facilitate the brain generating healthier and more functional patterns. In our experience, some patients may benefit even more from neurofeedback if we also use neurostimulation. We have found this to be particularly helpful for people in the grips of an anxiety disorder.

Contact The Drake Institute Today!

Anxiety and fear disorders are disruptive to everyday life. If you or someone you know is in need of help, please call the Drake Institute at 800-700-4233. Or, simply fill out the free consultation form.


[i] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3181681/

[ii] https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/anxiety/symptoms-causes/syc-20350961

[iii] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK519704/table/ch3.t15/   

[iv] https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/anxiety-disorders

[v] https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/signs-of-fear

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“David F. Velkoff, M.D., our Medical Director and co-founder, supervises all evaluation procedures and treatment programs. He is recognized as a physician pioneer in using biofeedback, qEEG brain mapping, neurofeedback, and neuromodulation in the treatment of ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorders, and stress related illnesses including anxiety, depression, insomnia, and high blood pressure. Dr. David Velkoff earned his Master’s degree in Psychology from the California State University at Los Angeles in 1975, and his Doctor of Medicine degree from Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta in 1976. This was followed by Dr. Velkoff completing his internship in Obstetrics and Gynecology with an elective in Neurology at the University of California Medical Center in Irvine. He then shifted his specialty to Neurophysical Medicine and received his initial training in biofeedback/neurofeedback in Neurophysical Medicine from the leading doctors in the world in biofeedback at the renown Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas. In 1980, he co-founded the Drake Institute of Neurophysical Medicine. Seeking to better understand the link between illness and the mind, Dr. Velkoff served as the clinical director of an international research study on psychoneuroimmunology with the UCLA School of Medicine, Department of Microbiology and Immunology, and the Pasteur Institute in Paris. This was a follow-up study to an earlier clinical collaborative effort with UCLA School of Medicine demonstrating how the Drake Institute's stress treatment resulted in improved immune functioning of natural killer cell activity. Dr. Velkoff served as one of the founding associate editors of the scientific publication, Journal of Neurotherapy. He has been an invited guest lecturer at Los Angeles Children's Hospital, UCLA, Cedars Sinai Medical Center-Thalians Mental Health Center, St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica, California, and CHADD. He has been a medical consultant in Neurophysical Medicine to CNN, National Geographic Channel, Discovery Channel, Univision, and PBS.”

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