Try our free, self-paced course to get tools to support your mental wellbeing. Tap here to sign up.

Understanding fear, anxiety, and stress
Resources: Mental Health, Wellbeing, Mindfulness, Self-care, For Myself
Understanding the difference between fear, anxiety, and stress can help you determine how to address them and look after your wellbeing.
Understanding fear, anxiety, and stress

There’s a lot of overlap in the use of these terms in everyday language, which can make separating them confusing. Having a better understanding of the differences in these distinct ideas can help you determine how to address them. 

What is stress?

Everybody feels stressed at some time or another. Stress involves being placed under some kind of pressure (real or perceived) and believing that we do not have sufficient resources to cope. We don’t feel that we have the abilities to manage the situation. The stressor is typically something imposed on us, like a deadline, unexpected bill, or relationship difficulties. It can be short term or long term. 

What is the difference between fear and anxiety?

Anxiety and fear are normal emotional states. 

Fear is based in the present. It is an immediate fight or flight response to danger or threat that is real or definite, such as seeing an intruder (something real) at the bottom of your bed!

Anxiety is future-oriented. It is the fight or flight response to something intangible, imprecise, that could mean future danger or misfortune. e.g. waking up in the middle of the night worrying that a burglar is in your house.

Although it feels uncomfortable, some anxiety is normal. Common situations in which people experience anxiety include going for a job interview, giving a speech, or trying something new. Problematic anxiety is fear that is out of proportion to the situation we are facing. When people feel anxious they will often avoid certain things or situations, even when there is no actual danger. Anxiety may be triggered by external situations, or by internal experiences (e.g. noticing unusual physical sensations or health issues, or negative thoughts). Sometimes people can experience anxiety to such a level that it begins to interfere with their day-to-day lives. When this happens, the anxiety response is excessive and is sometimes diagnosed as a type of anxiety disorder.

Why do they feel the same?

Stress, fear and anxiety can both trigger the ‘fight or flight’ response (also known as the stress response) in our body. The ‘fight or flight’ response is the automatic physiological reactions that occur when we believe we are under threat. It can bring on sensations and reactions including muscle tension and aches, increased heart rate, fatigue, nausea or butterflies, and difficulties concentrating or sleeping. We may also experience irritability or anger. Fight or flight is natural and a sign that our bodies are working well. In fact it’s fight and flight that will help us when we are really in danger by preparing us for immediate action to deal with threat or crisis. However, sometimes it is activated when we THINK we are in danger , not just when we REALLY ARE in danger, like a car alarm which is set off by the wind. So fighting or ‘fleeing’ are sometimes useful. They were certainly useful for our ancestors. This is not as true in the modern world. We humans have become so good at thinking about things (interpreting, analysing, predicting) and the world has become so complex that we are surrounded by triggers that can set off our fight and flight system. It’s easy then to start responding in a “fight or flight “way. This is especially true if we have developed conditions such as generalised anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, panic and other mood problems. 

How to manage stress

To manage stress, it can be helpful to identify the stressors. Once we identify the things making us feel stressed, we can focus on how to problem solve and manage the situation. We may also need to re-evaluate what coping resources we have available, as often we are feeling stressed we underestimate the range of options available to us. When our body is under stress, it can also be helpful to do activities that help calm and relax us. This can look different for different individuals. 

More generally, a great way to look after your wellbeing is to make sure you have a balanced ACE - Achievement, Connection, Enjoyment: 

  1. Do things that give you a sense of achievement. This doesn’t need to be huge – even small tasks will bring a sense of satisfaction, like tidying a part of your room or doing some dishes. 
  2. Connect with others. We are social beings and we feel happier when we spend time with friends and family. 
  3. Do activities that are just for your enjoyment. Reading a good book, dancing and singing, taking a bath – whatever works for you. 
Join us for our free mental wellbeing course!

Our evidence-based course equips you with practical and free methods of coping with stress better.