What writer circles call our character's "greatest fear," is, in actuality, our character's greatest worry/anxiety.
Definition of Fear and AnxietyFear: negative emotional state triggered by the presence of a stimulus that has the potential to cause harm.
Anxiety: negative emotional state in which the threat is not present but anticipated.
Both have the same response in a person, such as stress hormones flooding the body, increased heart rate, increased blood pressure to deliver power to muscles, sweat increases to cool those same muscles, non-essential systems are shut down, and your focus is on the threat to the exclusion to everything else.
The REAL DifferenceBut the difference is in what triggers this response.
Fear is triggered by an actual, immediate threat or danger. You could be hiking and run into a mountain lion. You might see a brown recluse while cleaning. An armed robber breaks into your home. These are actual, immediate threats, not implied. So in the psychology field, we say that fear has an object.
Anxiety is triggered by your thoughts.You can be sitting in your home and begin to worry about something, ruminate over it, and have a response in your body similar to the response your body would have if faced with an actual threat. Humans can project ourselves into the future unlike any other animal, and anxiety greatly increases with this ability, because the future is unknown. In the field, we say that anxiety is objectless.
What Writers Should Keep In MindOur characters might very well encounter legitimate fears, such as intruders, heights, spiders, and anything else on the phobia list. But the majority of the book will likely deal with their anxiety about one of these encounters happening in the future. (Click to tweet!) See the distinction?
So what does your character have anxiety about happening in the future?
Writers should keep in mind that often times, characters don't use the word "anxiety" when they talk to you. That word is fairly front-loaded with a lot of psychological stigma and vulnerability.
Characters, like folks in my office, might be more inclined to use the following language to describe their anxiety:
"I'm totally stressed out about..."
"I'm scared that..."
"I'm afraid that..."
"I couldn't sleep last night, thinking about..."
"I've been worrying about..."
The answer to any of these prompts might give you insight into a character's deep-seated anxiety...anxiety that would become their greatest fear (read: danger/threat) if realized.
Emily Dickinson on Fear/Anxiety
I wanted to leave you with the hauntingly beautiful words of Emily Dickinson, who some say suffered from severe anxiety. Her words here would lend credence to this theory. Pay close attention to lines 7-8, because they exactly speak to the difference between anxiety (line 7) and fear (line 8).
Part One: Life
|WHILE I was fearing it, it came,|
|But came with less of fear,|
|Because that fearing it so long|
|Had almost made it dear.|
|There is a fitting a dismay,||5|
|A fitting a despair.|
|’T is harder knowing it is due,|
|Than knowing it is here.|
|The trying on the utmost,|
|The morning it is new,||10|
|Is terribler than wearing it|
|A whole existence through.|