In many ways, anxiety is fear. Anxiety is the activation of your fight or flight system - a system designed to notify you when you're encountering danger, and prepare your body for fighting or running away. For most people, anxiety is this feeling of constant fear. Sometimes that fear is known, sometimes the fear is unknown, but no matter what it feels like fear is always there.
In this article, we'll explore the causes of your fear with anxiety, along with the different types of fear and coping strategies to help you overcome that fear.
Fear = Anxiety?
How do you know whether your fears are real or whether they're caused by your anxiety disorder? It starts by talking to your doctor and taking my free 7 minute anxiety test to learn more about your potential for anxiety.
How Anxiety Causes Fear
Anxiety is fear, and anxiety causes fear. Everything you experience may occur at times of danger as part of your working fear system. You're supposed to feel that way when you encounter danger. It's that feeling that keeps you safe.
It's an anxiety disorder when that fear appears to occur all the time with no apparent cause. That's when you have an anxiety problem - when the fight or flight system malfunctions, causing the fear response when no rational fear is present. Learn more about your anxiety by taking my anxiety test now.
Fear plays a role in anxiety in many different ways, and one of the issues that makes anxiety so hard to cure is that anxiety can cause fear _as a symptom of anxiety_, leading to further anxiety.
Fear as a Symptom
Many theorize that anxiety is the result of fewer fears in life. We rarely encounter predators anymore, so the body doesn't know what to do with the fight or flight system, and it starts to malfunction. But fear itself is also a symptom of that anxiety. There are many ways where anxiety actually creates fear, which creates more anxiety. Let's look at how this plays out in various anxiety disorders:
Generalized Anxiety Disorder
Generalized anxiety disorder, or GAD, is anxiety that doesn't seem to have a clear cause. It's a general feeling of nervousness without knowing where it comes from. In some cases, you may feel like you're mildly afraid but be completely unsure what you're supposed to be afraid of.
This type of anxiety can also lead to anxious thoughts and worries over irrational things. For example, if you have a child in college, you may suddenly worry that your child is hurt, and need to call them in order to make sure they're okay. These thoughts then cause real fear (worry over a hurt child), which in turn cause more anxiety.
Panic disorder is perhaps the best example of fear as a symptom of anxiety. Those with panic disorder have experienced panic attacks - regular, intense attacks of anxiety that cause such severe physical symptoms that they can be mistaken for heart attacks. Panic disorder itself is defined as one or both of the following:
- Regular panic attacks.
- Fear over panic attacks.
It's possible to never have a panic attack again but be diagnosed with panic disorder because you experience anxiety because you're afraid of getting another panic attack. That's one way that anxiety can cause fear which causes anxiety.
Another example is that because panic disorder has such serious physical symptoms, many people with panic attacks start to worry about their health all the time. They worry they have heart problems, brain tumors, multiple sclerosis, diabetes, lyme disease, and other terrible disorders that are directly linked to some of the symptoms of panic. But in reality, they're still all caused by anxiety. In these cases, anxiety is creating that fear.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
For reasons that are still unclear to psychologists, obsessive compulsive disorder, or OCD, occurs when you have persistent thoughts (obsessions) that cause distress for no apparent reason, ultimately leading to behaviors (compulsions) that you complete to relieve these thoughts.
Again, we see a disorder related to anxiety that appears to cause significant fear. It's believed that the thoughts occur specifically to cause fear. Those with OCD have minds that purposely pick out the most distressing thoughts or obsessions possible in order to evoke the reaction. This is another example of anxiety causing fear as a symptom.
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Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
PTSD is a type of anxiety that occurs after stress. Unlike the disorders above, PTSD doesn't necessarily create fear directly as a symptom. But what it does do is cause your baseline for controlling anxiety to start higher.
Doctors believe that after a trauma, where the mind and body experience severe stress, the anxiety is so pronounced that the baseline for experiencing anxiety gets higher. Things like loud noises and dark shadows would normally not cause much anxiety because the person starts from a lower baseline, but in those with PTSD their anxiety baseline is so high that smaller issues become bigger fears.
Of course, phobias themselves are the definition of irrational fears. Phobias are fear about a specific object, event, or issue (also known as a stimulus). They cause severe anxiety when the person is confronted with the stimulus in some way, even if it is nothing more than the idea of the stimulus - for example people talking about spiders can cause anxiety in those with a phobia of spiders.
Phobias can also have fear as a symptom because phobias cause what's known as "disaster thinking," where the mind goes to an impossible or worst case scenario immediately and causes extreme anxiety rather than taking a more logical and rational approach.
These are all examples of how anxiety itself can cause fear as a symptom, and how that fear can cause anxiety.
Fear as the Sole Cause
Fear itself may, of course, be the sole cause of anxiety. Those that fight in wars, or those that are worried about an upcoming test, or a first date - these are all people that experience fear, and that fear activates the fight or flight response and causes anxiety.
But because that fear goes away when the stimulus goes away, and because in some cases you are genuinely experiencing a rationally fearful event (fighting in wars), this is not considered an anxiety disorder. This is simply the activation of your fight or flight response, and in most cases it's considered normal and healthy.
How to Cope With Anxiety Fear
Every disorder has its own treatment. The best way to find the right treatment for you is to talk to a doctor, consider seeing a therapist, and find a strategy that focuses specifically on your anxiety symptoms. Until then, you can try the following techniques to reduce fear as a symptom of anxiety:
- Stop Fighting the Fear One of the most important things to do is stop fighting it. Fighting it causes more stress, which causes more anxiety. You need to be willing to accept that irrational fear is a natural part of living with anxiety and that it's okay if you have fearful thoughts as part of you disorder. Once you accept that you have an anxiety problem, you'll be a bit more comfortable with addressing it.
- Consider Over-exposure Studies have shown that the mind and body are incredibly adaptive. If you experience something that causes fear for too long without a consequence, your mind gets used to it and starts to relax. So you can consider exposure techniques. For phobias, this would include looking at photos of a phobia until you get less nervous. For panic disorder, this may include creating the same symptoms that trigger panic attacks. For OCD, you may need to think the obsessive thought on purpose until it is no longer distressing. All of these types of strategies have been known to reduce fear from anxiety.
- Relaxation Exercises Many relaxation exercises have shown success for those living with anxiety. Some of the best include deep breathing, yoga, progressive muscle relaxation, and visualization. All of these take practice before they become effective relaxation strategies, but in time you should notice a difference in your ability to relax your mind even when you're experiencing fear.
- Rationalization Exercises Learning to re-think your irrational fears can also be of benefit. Some people find writing out the fears in a journal when they experience them, and following them up with all of the more likely, logical beliefs can be a valuable exercise, while others find that affirmations (telling yourself everything is okay) also help rationalize things better.
- Positive Distractions Sometimes your biggest enemy is your mind. It's not always in your best interests to think, especially when your thoughts are anxious and fear producing. So look for fun, healthy ways to distract yourself. Try to make sure that they're positive as well. Anxiety feeds off negativity, so watching a drama on TV - while entertaining - is unlikely to improve your anxiety symptoms.
- Exercise Even though exercise is not specific to dealing with fear, it's absolutely one of the most important things you can do for your anxiety. Exercise burns away some of the stress and tension that leads to fear, while also releasing hormones and neurotransmitters that improve mood and rational thinking.
While all of these ideas may help reduce some of your fear when your fear is a symptom of anxiety, they are unlikely to cure anxiety on their own.
For that, you need to take my anxiety symptoms test. This test will use your symptoms to determine the anxiety you experience and recommend the best treatment available.
Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Sep 28, 2017.