Fear vs Anxiety


I was on a call this morning with some coaching friends, and we were talking about going to an emotional island where you can leave the emotions you don’t want behind. When I saw the topic for the discussion, my immediate thought was that I wanted to leave fear behind. As I was listening to others speaking and thinking about what was being said, I realized it wasn’t fear I wanted to leave behind but anxiety.


Fear is defined as being afraid of (someone or something) as likely to be dangerous, painful, or threatening. In contrast, anxiety is a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome. I think many of us use these words interchangeably, but I’m not sure they are. Fear seems more about a specific threat or danger, while anxiety is based in uncertainty and worry. One is there for protection in the moment, and the other is living in the “what if?”


I am good at playing out the “what ifs?” I have a clear memory of being in graduate school studying for a test, and not feeling prepared. My mind went from I’m not fully prepared, to I am going to fail this test, then to if I fail this test, I will fail out of school. If I flunk out of school, I will never find a job, and if I don’t have a job, I won’t have money; without money, I can’t pay bills, if I can’t pay bills, I will not have a place to live so I will be homeless. Within seconds, I went from feeling unprepared for one of many tests in school to being homeless. Spoiler alert, I did not fail that test, flunk out of school or end up homeless.


When I am in the space of anxiety, I get little, if anything, accomplished. I question every choice I make, worried that I am taking the wrong next step. I am concerned that if I make the wrong decision, it will lead to complete failure. I overthink; I play out every possible outcome, usually ending with some horrific result. And, when I believe that my choice will end with something terrible, I choose to do nothing.


When I feel genuine fear, there is a threat to myself or my loved ones. I want all of the people important to me to be safe and protected. This often leads me to action, not paralysis. I can see what steps I need to take to protect myself and others from danger. I have more clarity about what to do next. I can create a plan of action to keep us safe, healthy, and happy. I use the fear to move me forward, not sit in worry.


Fear without action can quickly turn into anxiety. When a potentially dangerous situation arises, we use fear to protect ourselves and get out of the situation. When we take action in that dangerous or painful situation, the threat is often contained, allowing us to move forward. On the other hand, if we do nothing, not only is the danger still there, but we worry, catastrophize, and sit with anxiety. Fear with action leads to change; fear with inaction leads to anxiety.


How would your life be different if you took away the anxiety and left the what-ifs behind? What would you do differently if you used your fear as a sign it’s time to make things happen in your life and take some risks? Are you anxious about that next big step you want to take because you aren’t sure what the outcome will be? Are you playing safe, worrying that things won’t go as you want if you take action? What would happen if you let go of the anxiety that things might not work out and took one small step towards that goal? How different would your life be? If you are ready to step out of anxiety and into action, reach out, and let’s chat to see what’s holding you back from living out the life of your dreams.

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