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Fear Versus Anxiety, and a Technique to Help With Both

October 01, 2023

‘Tis the season of haunted houses and spooky costumes, which means it’s a good time to talk about fear and anxiety.

Like it or not, fear and anxiety are part of the human experience: They’ve helped keep us alive this long, and they’re the secret behind every horror film, rollercoaster ride and marathon work session. But when these emotions get out of hand, they can seriously — and needlessly — hamper your quality of life.

Here’s the difference between fear and anxiety, and a technique to help with both.

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Fear is specific. Anxiety is more general.

Fear and anxiety overlap, but they do have a few subtle differences.

“Usually, fear is targeted at something specific, like a thing or a situation. Anxiety is more a feeling of something not being right,” says David Tolin, PhD, medical director of the Anxiety Disorders Center at the Institute of Living, part of the Hartford HealthCare Behavioral Health Network.

In other words, if you can run away from it, it’s probably fear. Think: Spiders, snakes or that airplane you’re supposed to board.

If it’s more lingering and hypothetical, it’s probably anxiety. What if my loved one gets sick? What if the stock market crashes? If you’re stuck on the vague possibility of something bad happening, that’s anxiety.

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Whichever you’re dealing with, this technique can help.

Fear, anxiety or both can contribute to any number of mental health challenges. For example:

  • General anxiety
  • Social anxiety
  • Separation anxiety
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Specific phobias, ex. fear of spiders, heights, flying, closed spaces, etc.

Whatever your trigger, the key to overcoming it is changing your brain’s response to it. There are several proven approaches, from medication to therapy.

One of the most effective is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

“CBT is a form of counseling that involves helping patients to do things differently,” says Dr. Tolin. “It teaches you how to manage your fear or anxiety better.”

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CBT is targeted and time-limited.

Unlike talk therapy, which tends to be more open-ended, CBT is focused. Right from the start, you’ll have a plan of action for a specific goal.

Anxious in general? You’ll learn to challenge your usual way of thinking and reacting, a process psychologists call “cognitive restructuring.” Afraid of heights? Eventually, you may literally climb a ladder as part of your CBT session.

“The basic idea is facing your fears, and thinking about things from a different perspective,” says Dr. Tolin. “We want your brain to learn, ‘I’m OK.’”

For fear and anxiety, just a handful of CBT sessions can make a big difference.

“We have a CBT protocol for panic disorder that’s five sessions. We have a protocol for specific phobia that’s literally one day,” says Dr. Tolin. “Some people respond to treatment very quickly. Others need longer. But CBT is not intended to be therapy for the rest of your life.”

Whether it takes five or 25 sessions, you’ll eventually graduate. Don’t worry, though: The benefits stay with you for a lifetime.

“You don’t lose all that knowledge,” says Dr. Tolin.

Yet another fear you can put to rest.