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Understanding Fear and Anxiety

Have 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 anxietyand 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, 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, please consider reaching out or setting up a consultation  


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.

Dr. Trey Cole

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