The difference between anxiety and fear

stria_terminalisPeople usually use the term anxiety and fear to mean the same thing, storestore cialis canadacialis canada especially given that the symptoms of both are similar. However there is a difference between anxiety and fear, physicianphysician viagraviagra both in terms of what they are and how they are processed in the brain. The medical, salvesalve pharmpharm psychiatric and psychological services work to a set of definitions which describe fear and anxiety differently:


Anxiety is a set of responses to an unknown, imprecise or ill defined threat, often anticipatory in nature.

Anxiety is described as "a diffuse, unpleasant, vague sense of apprehension"(1) An example would be you are preparing to do a big presentation and start to get a rapid heart beat, sweaty hands, shortness of breath as you start to think about doing the talk. This would be classified as anxiety. The feelings we get are in anticipation of the event and there is no one precise stimulus for the feelings.


Fear on the other hand is defined as a set of responses to precise, known, well defined and immediate threat.

Fear is usually described as a startle reflex. The moment we get suddenly frightened by a particular event. For example a sudden attack or someone jumping out at you.

Is there evidence of the difference between fear and anxiety in the brain and through research?

A series of studies have shown that sufferers of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) show a normal startle reflex but abnormal (heightened) anxiety response. A series of MRi and fMRi studies have shown that when people are startled (frightened) by a sudden loud noise an area of the brain called the central nucleus of the amygdala activates, and this in turn activates hypothalamic and brain stem target areas involved in specific signs of fear.

However when a subject is asked to think about something like doing a big presentation which brings about similar physical responses to fear, activates a brain area closely related to the amygdala, called the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis, which in turn activates hypothalamic and brain stem target areas involved in specific signs of fear. Not only that but signals associated with anxiety last much longer in the brain as opposed to fear or startle responses.

In short fear and anxiety start in different parts of the brain but elicit similar responses because they end up in the same place.




1. Kaplan, H.I. & Sadock B.J. (2010) Synopsis of Psychiatry, Tenth Edition. Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins.

2. Davis, M. (1998) Are different parts of the extended amygdala involved in fear versus anxiety? Biological Psychiatry. Volume 44, Issue 12, Pages 1239-1247 (15 December 1998)


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