• Anxiety is linked to fear, but there are some differences

  • Psychotherapist Dr Ana Mootoosamy explains the difference between fear and anxiety, why it’s hard to stop anxious thoughts

  • We have therapists available to help with anxiety – find them here

What is fear?

Anxiety and fear can feel very similar, but fear is usually directed at a danger that is very clearly present. Fear is a signal of something threatening in our environments (e.g. a vehicle approaching you too fast looking like it might hit you), and it keeps us safe by informing our bodies to take action to stay away from a dangerous situation (i.e. move out of the way of the vehicle as fast as you can).  

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is very similar to fear, as it also alerts the body to a threat – however, while with fear it is clear what the threat is, anxiety is usually a more generalised feeling that is not always directed at something obvious and dangerous. It could be considered a warning or signal that something is wrong, but it is not always clear what the danger is.

Anxiety therefore appears to prepare the body for something dangerous but is also tied to a feeling of uncertainty – it is not always very obvious what the anxious thoughts are linked to.

Why can anxious thoughts be so hard to get rid of?

With fear, the dangerous situation is usually very clearcut (e.g. seeing a poisonous animal) and based on this obvious danger, your body finds a way to take action to become safe from the danger (i.e. get away from the poisonous animal).

The issue with anxious thoughts is that it is not always easy to understand what the anxiety is really about and what this emotion is trying to tell you to do. Anxiety can be linked to planning for future threatening and dangerous events, but not linked to an imminent danger, making it harder for the feeling to go away.

Rather than being able to take action to relieve the feeling (which you can do with fear), with anxiety it is hard to know what action to take.   

How can psychotherapy help with anxious thoughts?

The first thing to understand about anxiety is that it is a natural and understandable emotion, and the feeling can pass when the anxiety-inducing situation has passed.

However, sometimes anxious thoughts linger and make it hard to cope, and can affect how your body feels. An important way to help with the anxious thoughts is to listen to them – this does not mean acting on them, but listening to what the thoughts are saying instead of trying to brush them away.

In psychotherapy, we can try to make sense of these thoughts and understand what the underlying cause of them is – what is the fear that your mind is planning for, is it a fear of something external, or is it an internal conflict – by understanding the anxiety, we can hope that this will eventually dampen the anxiety and make the thoughts less intense.

It is important to hold onto the hope that relief from anxiety and anxious thoughts is very possible and achievable. 

Dr Ana Mootoosamy is a verified Welldoing psychoanalytic psychotherapist in London and online

Further reading

When your thoughts and moods spiral, try this chain analysis technique

Why do we get triggered and what can we do about it?

Why a compassionate approach to living with anxiety is key

The neuroscience of fear: what's happening in your brain