By definition, anxiety and stress are characterised by separate feelings. The stress we experience in our daily lives is associated with frustration and tension, where anxiety often comes from a place of fear, unease and worry. Still, despite the differences, the terms are often used interchangeably.

Anxiety is a symptom. People who feel anxiety, experience muscle tension, agitation, panic, or a feeling of imminent trouble. They often also have apprehensive thoughts, such as fears of dying of a heart attack, fears of embarrassment or humiliation, or fears of something terrible happening. In addition, they often have negative physical sensations, including heart palpitations, sweating, dizziness, or shortness of breath. Some people with anxiety disorders follow certain rituals (checking door locks or hand washing) or avoid certain situations (bridges, tunnels, airplanes, or social situations) in order to deal with their anxiety.

Some people have a very identifiable cause for their anxiety; a traumatic incident, lots of stressors or have experienced a major life incident. However, some people don’t have a discernible cause for their anxiety and it causes them some grief. Sometimes there is a trigger situation that causes the overflow of anxiety.

It is normal and even helpful to experience fear in dangerous situations. Fear is an adaptive human reaction. It activates a protective purpose, the automatic “fight-or-flight” response.

But with phobias the threat is significantly overstated or non-existent. For example, it is only natural to be afraid of a lion, but it is irrational to be terrified of a friendly kitten.

Many infancy fears are natural. For example, many young children are afraid of the dark and may need a bedside light to sleep. That doesn’t mean they have a phobia. Most children will grow out of this fear as they mature.

There are four general types of phobias and fears:

  • Animal phobias. Examples include fear of snakes, fear of spiders, fear of rodents, and fear of dogs.
  • Natural environment phobias. Examples include fear of heights, fear of storms, fear of water, and fear of the dark.
  • Situational phobias (fears triggered by a specific situation). Examples include fear of enclosed spaces (claustrophobia), fear of flying, fear of driving, fear of tunnels, and fear of bridges.
  • Blood-Injection-Injury phobia. The fear of blood, fear or injury, or a fear of needles or other medical procedures.

Some phobias don’t fall into one of the four common categories. Such phobias include fear of choking, fear of getting a disease, and fear of clowns.

Social phobia, also called social anxiety disorder, is fear of social situations where you may be embarrassed or judged. Fear of public speaking, a very common phobia, is also a type of social phobia. Other fears associated with social phobia include fear of eating or drinking in public, talking to strangers, taking exams, mingling at a party, and being called on in class.

Agoraphobia is another phobia that doesn’t fit clearly into any of the above four categories. Traditionally thought to involve a fear of public places and open spaces, it is now believed that agoraphobia develops as a complication of panic attacks.

Afraid of having another panic attack, you become anxious about being in situations where escape would be difficult or embarrassing. For example, you are likely to avoid crowded places such as shopping malls and cinemas. You may also avoid cars, airplanes, subways, and other forms of travel. In more severe cases, you might only feel safe at home.