As I was pacing around the narrow hallway, I felt my heart beating rapidly and the muscles in my chest tensing up. I was minutes away from walking into the room, stepping on stage, and giving a keynote speech to hundreds of people. Although I deliver presentations to big audiences on a regular basis, it felt like I was doing for the very first time.
To help me relax, I sat down in a nearby chair. I then focused my attention on my thoughts and feelings, hoping this would reduce my anxiety. After a few moments, I began to wonder if I was experiencing anxiety. Or was this excitement disguised as fear? Maybe I was excited to go on stage and deliver my presentation.
Since that day, I have been curious to know whether anxiety and excitement are the same?
The more that I reflect on it, I don’t believe that they are completely the same. However, it seems like the symptoms of both are strikingly similar. Knowing this can provide you with a heightened awareness and new tools to redirect your anxiety into something positive. This will help you manage panic attacks.
Start by understanding anxiety
“Anxiety, like all emotions, is made up of three parts: how we experience it, how our bodies react to it, and how we express it,” Elizabeth Fessenden, M.A., LMHC, director of Dialectical Behavior Therapy Services at The Bridge of Central Massachusetts, Inc. told me via email.
“Some of the more common signs and symptoms of anxiety include feelings of nervousness, restlessness, and tension; having a sense of impending danger; feelings of fatigue, an increase in heart rate, rapid breathing, sweating, trembling, and gastrointestinal problems; and difficulty with sleep, concentrating, or thinking about non-worry thoughts. Urges to avoid things that trigger anxiety are also quite common.
"Your anxiety, although painful, can be giving you clues about what you could potentially do to help yourself. Let this be motivation for you to listen and respond in a way that will benefit you and potentially reduce the discomfort you are feeling."
There are also different types of anxiety disorders, and each disorder has additional symptoms. These include panic disorder (anxiety attacks), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), any phobia, social anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and generalized anxiety disorder. It’s important to work with a mental health professional to learn more about each.
The difference between anxiety and excitement
Tim JP Collins, the host of The Anxiety Podcast, says via email that “Physiologically anxiety and excitement are very similar. The difference is in our interpretation. If we were stepping onto a sports field for the game of our lives and the crowd was roaring and music playing, that feeling would be invaluable. Enhanced vision, hearing, extra adrenaline for increased performance. It's exactly what you need at that moment. Listen to the sports star being interviewed after his debut game: 'So were you nervous?’ ‘No, I was just super excited, couldn't wait to get out there and help my team.'"
In my opinion, anxiety is a negative experience and excitement is a positive experience. The difference is all in how you use it. Unfortunately, it’s much easier said than done. When I have a panic attack, it is impossible to think rationally.
To turn things around, it’s important to have tools available at your disposal.
Use the three C’s to turn anxiety into excitement
The first step is to remember that you have the power to choose your response.
Tim JP Collins suggests using the “3 C’s” (Curiosity, Courage, and Compassion).
- Curiosity: Begin by asking yourself questions like, “What's the message here?” or “Am I safe?” This process engages your prefrontal cortex. Anxiety is kicked off by the area of your brain known as the amygdala (a.k.a., the crocodile brain). Since this area is part of the prefrontal cortex, the questions allow you to interrupt the pattern of fear.
- Courage: Be prepared to feel your feelings and be uncomfortable until it passes. Get to know your anxiety, embrace it.
- Compassion: Anxiety sufferers are masters at mentally beating themselves up with guilt, shame, worry, and embarrassment. Remember that it's not your fault. Be gentle on yourself.
A woman once approached me after a conference and told me about her struggle with anxiety. I responded by asking her if she liked cars. She said that she didn’t just like cars — she LOVED cars. I then asked her to tell me how she would feel if she knew that I had her dream car waiting outside for her: brand new, paid for, insured, and ready for her to drive away. Her face lit up with a glowing smile.
I will never forget her response. She said, “I would feel excited... or maybe anxious. Wait… I’m not sure which one."
Here are some additional resources to help you along your journey:
Pathways to Anxiety: The Cerebral Cortex
What the Experts Say About Meditation for Anxiety