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  • Sonali Quantius

Fear vs Anxiety


Image by Marina Vitale


In my last post, I started on a journey to understand why do women experience anxiety at twice the rate as men and if there are any neurobiology reasons for it. In this post, I will dive into that but before we do that, it is important to understand the difference between fear and anxiety and how they are different in how our brains respond. Here it goes:


I do not like horror movies. I do not like the sounds, the sudden movements, the thrillers...they add up to the worst experience for me!


But I quit my well-paying corporate job to start a company and I don't feel any fear, only excitement.


So, given that 90% of new startups fail, why is it that I don't have any fear whereas you cannot pay me to watch 'The Shining'?


This is where the difference between fear and anxiety lies.


Fear is the emotional response to a real threat happening now while anxiety is the anticipation of future threats.


Fear is good. It is important for our survival and evolution. As children, fear helps us learn how to respond and stay safe. It is the same question our ancestors asked themselves: 'Do I eat it, or does it eat me?'


Here is an example of the dangerous consequence of the absence of fear: A 55-year old American woman ("SM") has no fear. 'SM' has held poisonous snakes, watched horror movies, and walked through 'haunted attractions'. She was once held at knifepoint and gunpoint, but her behavior lacked any sense of urgency. In fact, she walked back through the same park the next night without any fear.


Turns out, 'SM' has a very rare genetic disorder called the 'Urbach–Wiethe disease'. It causes complete damage to the 'amygdala' (pronounced as 'uh-mig-duh-luh'). Amygdala is a small, almond-shaped part of the brain near the ears. Even though it very small (occupying 0.3% of the volume of the brain), it plays a central role in the processing of memory, decision-making, and emotional responses (including fear, anxiety, and aggression).


Anxiety is different. It is a difference between the possibility of seeing a snake while out on a run (anxiety) vs seeing one (fear). It is less intense than fear but can be as damaging over a sustained period of time. Amygdala is a culprit here but interactions among many brain areas are all important.


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