Jumping into Change: What Are Your Fears Trying to Tell You?

Youth jumps into the water from cliff at sunset with outspread hands (intentional sun glare and lens flareHave you ever had an experience that left you feeling frozen in fear? Perhaps there was an important decision to make, but the idea of choosing either path felt dizzying. To understand these types of experiences and what to do with them, it is essential to understand what makes a certain choice or experience feel important. As part of understanding what makes a choice or experience feel important, one must also learn to differentiate between fear and anxiety and how separating these words can lead to feeling less stuck.

To ground these ideas, let me provide a brief personal example for reference. Many years ago, while vacationing in Mexico, I was reluctantly convinced to cliff jump into a cenote (a large, flooded sinkhole). Although there seemed to be little danger in doing so, as reflected by the flocks of children repeatedly jumping in around me, I found myself immobilized by an unknown angst as I looked down upon the water. Despite years of swimming experience, I imagined myself unable to swim upward once under the water. In fact, I even concocted an idea that a random shark had found its way into the cenote and awaited me as a snack. After many internal, uplifting speeches, however, I jumped into the water, rather enjoyed the experience, and did it again with newfound excitement.

In order to understand what happened in this story, one must first define anxiety and fear. From an existential perspective, anxiety can be understood as the dizzying or paralyzing effect of freedom. Fear, on the other hand, follows as an expression of anxiety (Kierkegaard, 1981). In the above example, anxiety was the feeling that occurred as I looked down at the water—the feeling of uncertainty about what would come next. Fear, then, was how I made sense of the anxiety I felt (i.e., inability to swim, lurking shark, etc.).

What makes a change feel important, then, is the felt sense that any number of different possibilities could occur based on what might be chosen. Fear gives imagined possibilities (anxiety) a voice, and because there is often comfort in the familiarity of remaining where one is, that voice is often unpleasant.

What makes a change feel important, then, is the felt sense that any number of different possibilities could occur based on what might be chosen. Fear gives imagined possibilities (anxiety) a voice, and because there is often comfort in the familiarity of remaining where one is, that voice is often unpleasant.

What, then, can be done about the paralyzing effects of anxiety as translated through fear? Relating back to my example, there are three options: (1) jump into the water, (2) don’t jump into the water, or (3) unpair the anxiety from its associated fear.

As to the first two options, there has been an growing societal narrative that places greater value on taking risks and “facing fears,” making the option to jump into the water seem like the obvious choice; however, when there is more import given to one choice over the other, one may feel shameful and lesser in choosing the less societally valued choice—in this case, not taking the risk to jump into the water. From an existential perspective, however, there is no value judgment given to either of these two choices. Sometimes, remaining where one currently resides is the best option at that time. Anxiety only informs the felt uncertainty of possible change; it does not give the consequences of such a choice value.

There is, however, another option. Instead of making an immediate choice, one can reflect on and try to understand what the fear is trying to “say” about the present anxiety, similar to a signpost giving information about a destination. While the signpost is not the destination itself, it may communicate something useful (i.e., alternative routes, pitfalls to avoid, or possible delays) about the road left to travel. Similarly, understanding fear may help one to make sense of why something feels anxiety-provoking and how to navigate that experience in a less tumultuous and stressful manner.

Consequently, the third option could also be called the “therapeutic option,” as reflecting upon and translating what fear is trying to “say” is an underlying goal of psychotherapy. As one begins to understand these experiences, the relationship between fear and anxiety can be named, thus disempowering and transforming the experience. In the above example, the anxiety related to jumping in the water never fully disappeared; however, the paralyzing fear transformed into excitement.

If you’re having difficulty making sense of your fears and anxieties, or if you’re struggling to make an important change, consider working with a therapist in your area.

Reference:

Kierkegaard, S. (1981). The concept of anxiety: A simple psychologically orienting deliberation on the dogmatic issues of hereditary sin. (R. Thomte & A. Anderson, Eds.). Princeton University Press.

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Trey Cole, PsyD, therapist in Denver, Colorado

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Sherrie

    Sherrie

    December 14th, 2016 at 2:04 PM

    If you are not at least willing to try out some new things then how will you ever truly know where your comfort level ends and all of that anxiety begins?

  • laurence

    laurence

    December 15th, 2016 at 7:44 AM

    I am not afraid of fear, but sort of motivated by it in a way

  • Xavier

    Xavier

    December 15th, 2016 at 10:47 AM

    Fear should be your little warning mechanism. This should be the little voice inside your head that tells you that look, if you do this then something really bad could happen. Do you want that to happen? If you don’t then maybe you should find something else to engage in.

    I think that there are just too many times when most of us ignore those little warnings because we have this fear of missing out on something exciting when really we could be saving ourselves from a good deal of danger.

  • Trey Cole

    Trey Cole

    December 16th, 2016 at 12:18 PM

    Xavier,
    I appreciate your comment and absolutely agree with you – our bodies do have a great warning mechanism that danger may be present. This was certainly true for our ancestors, as we never knew whether a rustling in the bushes was just the wind or a tiger looking to eat us. Fortunately or unfortunately, differences in our emotional experiences and relationships may cause the “burglar alarm” to go off, even when there is no one trying rob your house. In some cases, this stress response can be a great indicator of danger, and at other times it may limit our vulnerability in relationships. Of course, as I mentioned in the article, there is no value judgment (right or wrong) in how one chooses to respond to these stressors, only differences in how we experiences the consequences of either action.

  • kim

    kim

    December 16th, 2016 at 11:39 AM

    Change is not always a bad thing

  • Colette

    Colette

    December 21st, 2016 at 10:17 AM

    For me more than confusing fear and anxiety I get the emotions with fear and anger all wrapped up together.

    There are so many times when I look back that I know that I was afraid of going forward but I am sure that I took that out on someone in an angry sort of way. I think that somehow these emotions all get twisted up in one another for me and it makes getting through situations that I am unsure about very tough for me somehow.

  • Virginia s

    Virginia s

    December 29th, 2016 at 1:46 PM

    Grateful for any advice on coping with anxiety, suffered for years.
    Never mastered how not to let the emotional side cancelling out the decision making,
    Keeping cool and rational. I have survived but only just.

  • Trey C.

    Trey C.

    December 29th, 2016 at 2:27 PM

    Virginia,
    It sounds like coping with anxiety has been quite the struggle to overcome. It’s tough to give advice on how best to handle anxiety for you because it is expressed and experienced uniquely by you. Finding someone to speak with about your anxiety could be a great start in figuring out the best ways for you to cope with it.

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