What is the Difference Between Fear, Anxiety & Panic?

fear panic anxiety

There are some subtle but important differences between fear, anxiety and panic. Knowing this differentiation is crucial because it determines how you go about solving it. It’s like coming across a locked door. You look at it carefully and believe that its lock looks identical to a similar door. You insert a key in the lock and try to open it, but it doesn’t. You ought to remember that each lock, no matter how similar or identical in appearance needs an appropriate key.

So let’s see how fear, anxiety and panic differ from each other. You perceive an stimuli, an object or a situation as dangerous and menacing. This perception triggers the emotion of fear which, in turn, generates a physiological reaction, the flight or fight response. This physiological response is anxiety. Thus, a perception leads to an emotion which then leads to a physiological reaction.

Anxiety activates your body and helps you to cope with fear. However, when anxiety becomes too intense and goes beyond the normal threshold (which is unique to each individual) it generates a loss of control of your own reactions and can lead to panic.

Anxiety is a physical reaction that arises as a result of the perception of fear. If the level of anxiety is too high, it causes you to feel fear. Curiously, in this specific case, the cause (anxiety) becomes the effect (fear). The vicious cycle of fear, anxiety and panic is only typical of generalized phobias.

This means that a phobia cannot be categorized under anxiety, since it is a different type of problem. It can either cause the anxiety reaction or be the result of anxiety. Fear is an emotion caused by a perception of danger while anxiety is a physiological reaction of fear.

Neuroscientists have discovered that reducing anxiety does not necessarily lead to the extinction of fear. Among them are two distinguished researchers that are worth mention. Michael S. Gazzaniga is the director of the University of California–Santa Barbara’s SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind. Another influential brain researcher is Antonio Damasio who is the Professor of Neuroscience at the University of Southern California, where he also heads the Brain and Creativity Institute.

Gazzaniga and Damasio demonstrated in their experiments that reducing your anxiety level may stop your physiological reactions, but it does not alter your perception of what seems dangerous. Therefore your fear remains. Damasio says that when you inhibit the physiological reactions of fear through sedatives, or even surgery in certain areas of the brain, it would be as if you put the person in a full body cast and then expose them to an anxiety inducing situation. Of course they cannot react because they are in a full body cast but this inability to move and react increases the feelings of impotence.

Therefore anxiety inhibiting drugs initially can make a person feel better. But since the perception of fear still exists and continues, it may lead to a loss of confidence in their own resourcefulness.

This shows that it is necessary to follow the opposite path: solving the phobic reaction in order to reduce the anxiety reaction. You must alter the perception in order to change the physiological reaction, and not vice versa.