Chapter 8: Fear, Anxiety, and Stress

Definitions of Fear, Anxiety, Stress

Most psychologists consider fear to be an emotion.  Fear occurs when we experience a threat to our physical safety in our external environment.  Various views of anxiety exist.  One view suggests that anxiety is a personality trait.  Someone high on trait anxiety would experience high levels of anxiety across situations and over time.  Trait anxiety is subsumed within the Big 5 trait Neuroticism.  Individuals diagnosed with an anxiety disorder would be those who score extremely high on trait anxiety.  Another way that anxiety is differentiated from fear is through eliciting events.  For instance, Lazarus (1994) suggests fear results from a threat to our physical bodies (like a bear), whereas anxiety results from a threat to one’s self-esteem (like interpersonal rejection).  Another view is that the timing of the eliciting event distinguishes these two constructs. Fear occurs post-stimulus, whereas anxiety occurs pre-stimulus.  Post-stimulus means fear occurs after the eliciting event, whereas anxiety occurs before the eliciting event (and anxiety could occur even though the eliciting event never even happens!).  Expanding on the pre- and post-stimulus view, because anxiety is pre-stimulus, people may feel anxiety toward a threatening event that may or may not happen (Lang et al., 2000).  Thus, anxiety can be present with an expected upcoming stimulus or without an eliciting stimulus – such as when people experience anxiety during baseline measures.  Expectedness and novelty are two cognitive appraisals that differentiate fear and anxiety.  Fear (as seen below in the Scherer, 1997 study) is associated with novel and unexpected events, whereas anxiety occurs with expected and familiar events.  For example, we are aware of an upcoming presentation that evokes anxiety but would not predict hitting a deer on the way to work! In general, anxiety seems to last a longer period of time than fear and other typical emotions, especially if we assume the trait perspective of anxiety!

Stress is an unfolding process of emotions, such that as people cope with a negative event, their cognitive appraisals of the event cause a change in their emotions.  A stress response might include subjective feelings of both fear and anxiety.  Thus, stress is not an emotion in itself (stress lasts too long to be considered an emotion) but does encompass changes in emotions.

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Psychology of Human Emotion. by Michelle Yarwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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