Anxiety v. Excitement – What’s the Diff?

Anxiety v. Excitement – What’s the Diff?

I remember how startled I was to learn, somewhere in graduate school in clinical psychology, that the body can’t tell the difference between anxiety and excitement.  Meaning…the nervous system mobilizes the body to respond – take action – whether we’re dealing with something truly dangerous or simply something new or unknown.

How our brain processes and our mind interprets that automatic stress response is key to whether we believe we are anxious, excited, or some dance of both.

When we learn to pay careful attention to what’s happening internally – our reactions to what’s happening externally – we can more intentionally choose to respond more resiliently to anything potentially scary, anything at all.

Practicing noticing how we respond to anything – ever – fine tunes our capacities to respond to everything – always. 

Example: you notice a vague uneasiness around one person, an inner smile and opening around another, a stultifying boredom around still another.  Depending on the conditioning of your previous experiences around all kinds of people, and depending on the mindset you’ve developed about interacting with any fellow human beings in general, you may notice that you behave around this particular person in a deeply grooved reflexive way – you don’t even have to consciously think about it until you’ve already moved toward or moved away. 

It’s the noticing that gives you a second or two to reflect and discern and choose how you want to respond to this person, maybe even deciding to do a do over if you discover you’ve changed your mind.

Same with the stress response.  Even though the body’s stress response is completely hardwired into the nervous system by evolution, we still have learned responses to the body-based signals to rev up and take action.

Do we drive across the flooded roadway?

Do we go up into the attic with a flashlight to see what’s scurrying around up there at night?

Do we make a doctor’s appointment to find out what’s really going on with that persistent cough?

Do we check the bank account to see if we have enough money to buy groceries tomorrow?

Do we find the courage to ask the boss to make good on a promise of time off for extra time put in last month?

Do we apologize to our teenage son for not keeping a promise?

Do we try out that new restaurant or visit a new city?

Do we take that new job even though it means moving across country?

When we experience anxiety – or interpret our revving up to take action as becoming anxious – we’re at risk for procrastination, distraction, avoiding the potential problem altogether to make the anxiety go away rather than taking skillful action to resolve the problem, relieve the anxiety, and feel proud of ourselves for doing so.

Learning to use the body’s automatic stress response as a cue to interpret the potential problem as a potential possibility is a subtle but powerful shift in mindset.

Learn to find ease in risk. – John O’Donohue, For a New Beginning

If we can become curious and interested and open-minded – “Hey! What’s going on here?” – we can experience our revving up as excitement, and that’s the key to taking the most appropriate action to solve the problem, learn from how we handled the situation, and feel proud of ourselves for doing so.

Many of our fears are paper-tissue thin, and a single courageous step would carry us clear through them. – Brendan Francis


As always, when learning to change the brain’s learned patterns of response, even a pattern as hefty as an entire mindset, It’s wise and effective to practice little and often, small experiences repeated many times.

1.  Identify any moment of the stress response revving up:

– you turn on the kitchen faucet and no water comes out.

– you’re already a tad late to your good friend’s wedding and the road is blocked by an accident.

– you discover the telephone bill you thought you had paid is hiding under a pile of papers on your desk.

2.  Notice your own internal reaction – any activation of sensations (heart jumping, stomach churning, palms sweating), any signals to “do something!”

(It’s okay to experience these very normal signals; your nervous system is working to alert you and protect you from danger. It’s okay to label this reaction as anxiety because that is what we usually call this experience of activation.)

(If you notice you’re not especially reacting, you’re pretty calm, and steady, ready to deal, terrific.  Take a moment to notice that and feel happy, grateful, proud that this is so.  And then evoke another experience that could or did trigger a stress response, for practice.)

3. Notice your interpretation of your reaction – a negative “Oh no! Here I go again! Anxiety!!!”  Or maybe you set the reaction aside so you can go ahead and try to solve the problem.  Or maybe there’s a glimmer of “Hmmm. Okay.  What can I do and what can I learn?”

4. For practice, experiment with choosing the mindset of potential possibility.  “Well, that an interesting problem to solve!  What can I learn here? What do I need to learn to solve this problem well?  Who could teach me what I need to learn?”

5.  Practice applying this mindset to the problem at hand and notice:

– any differences in how you view the problem

– any differences in how you view or label your internal response to the problem

– any differences in how you view yourself for choosing to experiment with shifting your mindset

6.  And repeat, repeat, repeat, with as many stress responses to smaller stressors as you can identify, gradually applying this shift in mindset – from potential problem to potential possibility – to more challenging stressors, more challenging internal responses, noticing if you experience the big shift from anxiety to excitement; how exciting that would be!

You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience by which you really stop to look fear in the face.  You must do the thing you think you cannot do. – Eleanor Roosevelt