Do you know the difference between fear and anxiety?
If you look in the dictionary or ask most people, these words are often used interchangeably. However,
there is an important distinction between them. To understand, let’s consider Janet and Marc.
The sun was just beginning to peek through the blinds as Janet opened her eyes to a new day. There was
so much to do before her big meeting in the early afternoon. After several years of working late into the
evening every day and missing out on vacations and times with friends, she was finally given the
opportunity to present her ideas and move ahead in the company. She had been so certain her
superiors would love her work. However, as she drove to work on that all-important day, an intense
feeling overtook her. Her stomach clenched, her heart and thoughts began to race, and as she saw her
reflection in the rear-view mirror, she noticed huge beads of sweat forming on her brow. By the time
she arrived to work, she was nauseated. Rather than prepare for the meeting, she spent almost an hour
in the bathroom. Oh no! I have to get out of this! I’ll never make it!
Marc had been up since dawn. He loved this time in the morning. Watching the sunrise while listening to
music and working out on his elliptical trainer was an elixir for his soul. He was ready for his day. He felt
strong. After a hearty breakfast, he hugged his children and kissed his wife goodbye as he made his way
to his car. Marc enjoyed his ride to work by listening to the latest audiobook. His house was high on top
of a hill overlooking the city. The ride down was curvy, but he did not mind. Unbeknownst to Marc,
though, today was different. Halfway down the hill, the brakes began to slip. Instantly, his stomach
clenched, his heart and thoughts began to race, and as he caught his reflection in the rear-view mirror,
he noticed huge beads of sweat forming on his brow. Oh no! I have to get out of this! I’ll never make it!
On the surface, these two stories are rather different from each other. Nevertheless, both people
experience identical physical feelings and even the same thoughts. What happening here?
The human brain is wired to be on the lookout for a threat. To understand the disparate stories of Janet
and Marc, it can be helpful to divide the threats into two major types: Life and Limb versus Social and
Life and Limb Threats. Deep in the recesses of our brains lie the amygdala and limbic system. Dr. Daniel
Siegel, prolific author and psychiatrist, as well as the father of the relatively new field of Interpersonal
Neurobiology, refers to this area as, “SAM” – Search, Alert, and Mobilize. SAM searches by working with
the brain’s, “Grand Central Station”, otherwise known as the thalamus. Incoming stimuli is analyzed and
if it is labeled a “known threat” to physical well-being, an alert is sent to the amygdala and stress-related
hormones and neurotransmitters are released to prepare the body to move (mobilize). With respect to
these types of threats, SAM’s response time is extremely rapid – nano- or millisecond processing times
are common so as to move the body out of the way in time. This, we will refer to as the fear response.
Social and Practical Threats. Unlike SAM’s astronomically fast processing, the front part of the brain, the
frontal lobe, in particular, is much slower. To simplify, we will refer to this pondering portion of the brain
as the “Executive Assistant”, or “EA”. The EA’s response time is on the order of the first IBM computer
versus the Cray Super Computer (SAM). This is the case because incoming information foreign to the leaders at Grand Central (the thalamus), and therefore not a known threat to physical safety, are shot
over to the EA for analysis. This naturally takes longer. Suppose your boss reprimands you for the first
time, an important project isn’t finished the way it was meant to be, or self-doubt (such as with Janet)
creeps in – all of these can signal the frontal lobe to panic and shoot off a stress-response request to
SAM. Without mindfulness, the EA generally interprets this as a reason for fight or flight, just as if SAM
was acting alone. When the EA is called on to label and respond to a threat, that is the anxiety response.
Besides the separate mechanisms and purposes that fear and anxiety have in the brain, these two
responses also require different solutions. Life and Limb threats require fight or flight (get help or get
out). On the other hand, social and practical threats generally require problem-solving, people skills, or
distress tolerance. The difficulty in distinguishing between them lies with the fact that the body typically
registers the same physical response in both. Therefore, in either case, the non-mindful human is left in
a state of wanting to ditch the situation. In Marc’s case, preparation to escape the situation of a car that
cannot stop as it speeds down a windy hill would be a good idea (if he can do it safely). Janet, however,
has likely done herself more harm than good by fleeing her “threat” and hiding out in the bathroom.
At The Center • A Place of Hope, we understand how prevalent anxiety is in our fast-paced, overwhelming
world. Our caring staff and cutting-edge, whole-person groups teach clients how to recognize and
appropriately respond to the two states-of-being explained here. We readily provide education and
support and can help you as you work to build a peaceful and abundant life!
Written by Hannah Smith, MA LMHC CGP, Group Therapy Program Coordinator, she is a Neuroscience-
informed, Licensed Therapist and International Board-certified Group Psychotherapist. Hannah’s passion
is to see people reach their potential and find lasting, positive change. The Center; A Place of Hope,
located on the Puget Sound in Edmonds, Washington, creates individualized programs to treat
behavioral and mental health issues, including eating disorders, addiction, depression, anxiety, and