Difference Between Fear And Anxiety

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Understanding the difference between fear and anxiety is an area where Western psychologists, who are usually highly concerned with dysfunction, have let us down. Most people do not have a favorable or accurate view of what anxiety is or the role it plays in human life, and they often confuse fear with anxiety. The standard answer from a Western psychologist is that anxiety is an exaggerated response to a given stimuli, whereas fear is commensurate with the stimuli that occasions it.

In effect this definition pathologizes anxiety. It sees fear and anxiety as the same entities at different stages on a continuum, where anxiety is really just exaggerated fear. But this is a superficial understanding of what is going on. Anxiety and fear are two completely different entities although they share many visible symptoms.

The reason they are different is that when you are afraid, you have something to be afraid of, an object in your environment that is stimulating that fear. This object can be conceptualized and understood by you, and there are usually measures you can take to protect yourself from it. If you are successful your fear will go away.

Anxiety is more ephemeral because it doesn’t have an object attached to it. As we have written elsewhere anxiety is the threat of nothingness, either real in the form of death or symbolic. You can’t conceptualize nothingness. It’s an unnameable, unknowable dread that you can only get brief, fleeting glimpses of in your periphery. But this makes anxiety sound evil and it’s not, unless you consider death to be inherently evil.

You can never really make anxiety go away because the specter of death hangs over you every moment you are alive until the day you die, and there is no escaping it. Like we said above you can make fear go away by escaping the situation that occasions it, but you could never make anxiety go away unless you became immortal.

Having existential anxiety means you are aware of your existential situation. The route to well-being is not by trying to reduce anxiety but by trying to understand it better. If you can heed the message it is sending you, you will gain valuable information about the practice of your life and what needs to change.