Fear vs. Worry

Bear with me folks. Today’s topic might feel a little nit-picky to you, but I think that it’s an important one to explore. I’d love for you to think a little bit about two emotional experiences that often get mixed up together. I don’t believe that they are the same, and I hope that you (and my clients) can learn to tell the difference between them. The definitions I’m about to use are not dictionary definitions. Instead, they are my own working definitions, drawn from lots of great researchers (Brene Brown, Rick Hanson, and Robert Siegel are just a few). But for the purposes of this post, these are the definitions I’m working with:

Fear: An emotion tied into the “fight-or-flight” sympathetic nervous system, triggered by situations in which we experience emotional or physical danger.

Worry: An emotion tied into the “fight or flight” sympathetic nervous system, triggered by anticipation of things that may cause emotional or physical stress.

Now if you look at those definitions, they look a lot alike, at first glance. In fact, they start off identically. That’s because they set off the same series of responses in our bodies. They use the same neurochemical pathways.

But worry and fear are different. And we don’t treat them that way. Our language acts as though they are the same. Here’s an example: “You have nothing to fear but fear itself.” WRONG! If there is a tornado bearing down on you, or someone pointing a gun at you–you are in danger and you should be afraid.

Fear is your brain and body’s way of letting you know that you are in a dangerous situation. It is supposed to trigger your sympathetic nervous system to help you respond appropriately to danger.

Worry is a fear-mimic, which generates an endless list of possible dangers that you should prepare to be ready to respond to. Worry doesn’t keep you safe. It just drains your energy. It keeps your body in a state of high alert that is toxic. Worry actually makes it hard for you to notice real, appropriate, self-protective fear. If you are reading about tornadoes in other states, you’re not in danger from them. You don’t need to go into fight-or-flight mode. That’s a worry response.

Worry is one of the primary things that stops us from living as though it will be okay.

So I’m going to ask you to join me in an experiment this week. I’m inviting you to notice your responses and try to sort them based on these definitions. Are you responding to a current physical or emotional threat? That’s fear. Are you preparing for the possibility of some future physical or emotional threat? That’s worry. You don’t have to do anything else. Just try out how it feels to notice the differences and call them out.

Have you had worry try to masquerade as fear? Has it stopped you from living the life you want? We can challenge worry–it just takes practice.


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