Though very similar in the common lexicon, panic, fear, and anxiety are in fact distinct psychological concepts, and recognizably different experiences as well. It’s not even all that hard to sum up the differences: essentially, you are anxious when there is no tiger, but might be; you’re fearful when you see a tiger nearby; you’re panicked when the tiger is gnawing on your leg.
Very few of us experience true panic. Panic is focused exclusively on the present. It’s an intense, discrete terror that takes nothing into account but what is happening exactly at that moment. In a panic attack, for instance, you might be thinking only of how your heart is beating too fast and your chest hurts and you’re almost certainly about to die. Panic does not require the direct presence of the stressor: although a tiger gnawing on your leg can inspire panic, so can breathing too hard or fast if you’re predisposed to attacks, or being in a place where you’ve had a panic attack before. The most important component of panic is immediacy.
Fear is future-focused but requires a stressor’s presence. You see a tiger, and it might attack you, and you’re afraid. The closer it gets to attacking you, the more scared you are – scared of what it might do, if you might die, if you might lose a leg or an arm, if anyone will find your body. The future focus in fear need not be days or weeks in the future. It could be just a few minutes. It could be a few seconds. By “future,” it’s simply implied that your cognitions center on outcomes – “this tiger is going to kill me” rather than “there are currently tiger teeth in my leg and it feels rather unpleasant.” It’s a fine distinction on paper (or computer screen) but the more important component to remember is presence: the tiger is real and it’s right there.
Anxiety is future-focused, like fear, but can occur with or without a stressor, like panic. Anxiety is exclusively speculative. Anxious cognitions are invariably “what if”s: what if there’s a tiger in my closet? What if the bank teller hates me? What if I trip and fall in front of President Obama? Whether or not the tiger, bank teller, or Obama are actually there, the anxious cognitions are equally strong. They are independent of the stressor’s presence. Anxiety, then, can be best summed up as speculation. Unpleasant speculation, to be sure, but speculation all the same.
It’s important to note that these three concepts can be equally strong, equally unpleasant, and equally intense. They’re simply different sides of the same coin, if the coin had an extra dimension so it had three faces. It’s not critical to understand the difference, and there won’t be a quiz at the end of this post, but it’s helped me, at least, to isolate reasonable fears from unreasonable anxieties.
Not to make this post a jumble of terminology, but the phrase catastrophic thinking is also important to understand. Catastrophic thinking is the process of instantly jumping to the worst possible outcome. It’s common in panic and anxiety: a racing heart means a heart attack, not that you just took the stairs and are out of shape. A fleck of brown on your hand is a cancerous mole, not a smear of chocolate. I exclude fear because in fear, there is an actual tiger and it’s right about to bite you. In anxiety, there might be a tiger behind the door, and it might eat your face, and you might be hideously disfigured for the rest of your life…but it’s probably just clothes.
So here’s my challenge to you: when you feel that uncomfortable feeling, that fight or flight, determine if it’s fear or anxiety, and then determine if you’re thinking catastrophically. The tiger could come up and bite you, or it could growl and walk away. It could be behind your closet door, but there could just be a pair of boots. It’s very difficult, in the midst of anxiety, to take a breath and figure out what’s actually going on, but it’s crucial to mental health to be able to identify if you’re overreacting, even just cognitively. Just remember that somewhere out in the midwest, I’m probably doing the exact same thing.