The Difference Between Fear and Anxiety + why this matters for HSPs

by Caroline van Kimmenade

If you thought fear is just the big sister of anxiety, you’re not alone. On the face of it, anxiety and fear are very similar. Except, for their root causes.

Fear tells you that something dangerous is on the horizon. Anxiety may seem to tell you the same thing, but actually it’s very different. While fear is an emotion, anxiety is a secondary reaction to an emotion or situation. Anxiety says: I don’t feel good because I don’t know what this is.

However, not knowing doesn’t mean there is something dangerous on the horizon. In fact, there could be something sad on the horizon, or something plain confusing. Anxiety is not warning you about something dangerous per se, anxiety is letting you know that you have no clue what’s going on with you.

See the difference? Fear says: this is dangerous. Anxiety says: I don’t know what this is.

Why Anxiety can be Common for Highly Sensitive People

If you’re a Highly Sensitive Person, and you’re also sensitive to energy, chances are, you have many many many moments during the day when you don’t automatically know what’s going on.

Why is that? Because the more subtle things you pick up on, the more sophisticated your “deciphering” skills need to be. Since many of us were raised with an emotional education that barely went beyond mad, sad, glad, it’s no wonder that people who are subtly attuned to the world around them, often feel anxious. There are just too many subtle things going on that you can feel and otherwise sense, but can’t identify!

You may have had people tell you that you need to chill, that you’re too tense (or intense) and that there’s no reason to worry because it will all be fine. Yet, those kinds of – let’s assume well-intended – reactions don’t address the problem for what it is:

  • Firstly, it’s very hard for the mind to be in a relaxed state while not knowing what’s going on. Seriously, you’d have to be beyond-master level zen to achieve that.
  • Secondly, there’s a reason your mind is sounding the alarm. After all, what you’re sensing could be very important to deal with. Yet, if you don’t know what it is, well, you’re stuck aren’t you?

This is why “calming down” when you feel anxious is often such a pointless endeavor. Sure, it doesn’t help to get more worked up, but “just relaxing” is like telling a security guy who sees something suspicious on camera, to “just relax, I’m sure it’s nothing”.

That would be irresponsible, right? A security guard who dismisses every unknown as “I’m sure it’s nothing”. Until the unknown thing is investigated, it could be anything. It could be a cat, it could be a cat burglar. It could be a cat and a burglar… It’s important to investigate.

via GIPHY

This is why treating anxiety like “just fear” doesn’t work. Anxiety requires investigation to be resolved.

It’s like leaving the house being unsure whether you locked the door, or turned the gas off. You’d be anxious as long as you didn’t know right? Better to go back and double check just in case.

The Deeper Purpose of Anxiety

Anxiety serves an important purpose because it lets you know something is up, it lets you know that you you don’t know what that “something” is, and it (when you understand the previous two things consciously) encourages you to investigate.

Yet, anxiety can seriously weigh you down if you’re constantly sensing, feeling, hearing and seeing things that you can’t fully identify. Is it a problem or not? Is it a big deal or not? Do you need to do something about it or not?

The mind tends to react to unknowns like this:

OMG, what’s that?

No seriously, what is it?

I need to know what this is!!!

Not knowing what this is doesn’t feel good!

Yikes, what if it’s something dangerous!

What if it’s important that I know???

What do I do now???

Do you feel a little anxious just reading those words?

How Sensitivity Affects Anxiety

In my teens, I was anxious quite often. Looking back, there were just so many things I was sensing and couldn’t identify. And yes, some of those things were dangerous.

Had I known what I know now, I wouldn’t have dated some of the boys I dated. There were lots of bad yet very subtle signs, but I didn’t know how to interprete them!

I wouldn’t have listened to some of the people I listened to. They didn’t know what they were talking about but while I was getting anxious signals, I didn’t know what those meant.

When we feel anxious and don’t know why, as women – and girls especially – we’re encouraged to put it down to “I guess I’m just crazy or overreacting”.

Looking back at my teenage self now there are so many situations where current me would be able to step in and confidently say: you’re not crazy, this is what you’re feeling and this is what that means. And no, it’s not what other people are telling you it is.

It took me many years to learn how to identify and decipher all the different things I pick up on. Sometimes I pick up on new things I’ve never encountered before but the difference with my teenage self is that I now have quick ways to figure out what is what.

Whether it’s subtle energy from spaces I’m in or other people, my own emotions (old or new), limiting beliefs stuck on repeat, paranormal phenomena, something not adding up… I now have quick ways to identify and (often) resolve it. So when I feel anxious, it’s mostly a blip, encouraging investigation and then it’s done.

Of course, we all have some situations that are anxiety inducing. When you’re in a new environment or your life is “taking a turn for the new” you’ll likely feel some anxiety because there simply are some unknowns. Nevertheless, this is much easier to deal with when all the daily subtle energy signals can be identified and processed on the spot.

How Do You Solve Anxiety?

Reading this you may be thinking that to reduce your anxiety, you need a solution for everything. Yet surprisingly, that’s not true at all.

Anxiety is truly a reaction to “not knowing”. Once you know, even if you don’t know what to do with that knowledge yet, the anxiety goes away. (Thankfully! Because it’s such an icky feeling, right?)

So that means that when you get good at deciphering what’s up, anxiety comes in short blips. You get a blip of anxiety, you identify what’s going on, and the anxiety is gone. Even if processing what you figured out and finding a solution takes literal months, the anxiety is gone. All the anxiety was meant to do was get your attention and encourage you to investigate.

A Client Example of Anxiety

A client was feeling anxious when interacting with her mother. As it turns out, her mother was very passive aggressive and tended to throw around a lot of subtle negative energy. (And when I say energy, I don’t mean attitude, it’s not a metaphor, I mean literally throwing energy around).

My client would receive a lot of condescension from her mom this way. No words, no actions, just a subtle vibe coming at her full force. Obviously, this is a whole can of worms to discover in and of itself but the moment that she had a name and explanation for what she was feeling: ‘this is what it feels like when my mom energetically bombards me with condescension’, her anxiety went away.

I also taught her how to get that condescension out of her energy field of course, but just knowing what it was that she was feeling in the first place, was enough to make the anxiety go away.

Why did just knowing what it was help her feel so much better? Because that was the purpose of the anxiety: to encourage my client to investigate. Once the investigation was complete, anxiety’s purpose was fulfilled and it could disappear.

Our sensitive bodies are in lots of situations where – without training – all they can do is yell “investigate please!”, because you have things to learn about what you’re picking up on, what that means, and how you can deal with it.

Factors that Affect Anxiety for Highly Sensitive People

As a Highly Sensitive Person, it’s important to understand the kinds of things that will make anxiety overall worse or better. Let me give you a list. Each of these points ideally warrants its own article (which I may write one day), but for now, let me briefly name and explain them.

1. Your body is on High Alert due to trauma

When you’ve trained yourself to pay attention to everything (because you had to once, to try and stay safe), you will pick up on many more stimuli than you need to, and there will be more “what is that?” anxieties as a result. Being on High Alert is the result of a kind of mental programming, that can be changed (details here).

2. You’re often floating outside of your body, dissociating

Many sensitive people struggle with proper grounding – which is a very important topic. In short, when you are not staying put inside your body, you will pick up on more things that are going on in the world out there (= more anxiety) and you will be less familiar with your own inner signals and what they mean (= more anxiety).

3. When you’re co-dependent or otherwise feeling overly responsible for the well-being of others, you will have more anxiety

Why? First of all, there are many unknowns and things you don’t control in the lives of other people (= anxiety). Secondly, in trying to help solve other people’s problems, it’s highly likely that you’re using your intuition to try and “find out more”. More info is more new questions (= more anxiety).

4. Knowing and honoring your processing limits matters

Many HSPs are encouraged to “push on” when they really need a break. If you were raised this way then you will probably not know when you truly need to pause.

You’ve gotten out of sync with yourself because you’ve been so conditioned to override your own early fatigue and overwhelm signals. As a result, you only realize what’s up when you’re completely overwhelmed or exhausted, having a panic attack, an angry outburst or shutting down with a three day nap.

When you’re too tired to properly process incoming information, all information just turns into anxiety. You no longer know what it is, because you don’t have the brainspace to properly evaluate it anymore. As a result, things that ordinarily are just common tasks can turn into confusing, overwhelming, anxiety-inducing issues.

5. Emotional Intelligence is key

EQ is a lot more than simply acknowledging that you have lots of feelings. The more feelings you have, the better you need to get at identifying them. Otherwise, each feeling turns into a “what is it???” anxious inner signal.

Quite a few Highly Sensitive People can name physical sensations (feeling tension, cold, a burning sensation etc) but can’t properly identify many emotions. There is no shame in that, but it is important to work on emotional literacy. Otherwise, most emotions will be experienced as anxiety instead.

The Downward Spiral of Anxiety

While the list of factors above are all separate issues, they also feed into each other.

If your body is on High Alert, then you will run into processing limits more quickly. (Paying attention to everything means more stimulation, more stimulation also means more things that need processing).

If you are overly responsible, but can’t fully understand what you are feeling in your interactions with others, then you’ll lack the essential feedback your emotions are giving you, about whether what you’re doing is truly helping or not.

If your “coping mechanism” is to dissociate when feeling overwhelmed, then all this floating around outside your body will increase your anxiety further.

In short, there are many habits that can increase anxiety. It’s important to understand how this works so that you don’t create more anxiety in trying to deal with your anxiety.

Rule of thumb: anxiety requires investigation. You can’t investigate everything so it’s important to have a realistic focus, stay grounded and pay attention to what’s happening inside of you, and take breaks when you are overloaded.

How to Break the Anxiety Cycle

Lessening anxiety requires relevant knowledge, and healthy habits.

First off, it’s helpful to check with me what you are and aren’t picking up on. Depending on your exact sensitivities, you may be helped tremendously by learning about your sensitive abilities – so they truly become gifts instead of burdens.

Secondly (and this should really be first), it’s crucial to dedicate yourself to learning to ground well. I don’t mean the practice of connecting to the core of the earth (I have a whole long rant I need to share about that one day). Grounding – simply put – means noticing what’s happening in your own body and feeling your feelings. On good days this can be super easy but it’s crucial to stay grounded even on really tough days when nothing is going your way. I’ve taught many clients how to ground and I find that all need their own unique explanations and pointers to make grounding really work for them. Because of this, I recommend getting in touch if you’d like better pointers on this.

Thirdly, if you are feeling stuck in High Alert Mode then I can probably help you reset that in a Trauma Healing. This is the one thing on this list that I can do completely for you. All you have to do is show up. For my advanced energy work clients, I can also teach you how to do this resetting yourself.

Fourthly, it’s crucial to learn to accept and honor your sensitivity. This includes making space for your vulnerabilities and true limits. When you can’t work harder, work smarter. When you can’t work smarter, get some things off your plate. This is easier said than done of course, but living beyond your limits will lead to chronic anxiety guaranteed. Too many folks are stressing themselves out with the “peace carrot”. They tell themselves that when they complete their long to do list, then they can rest. This is a recipe for never getting any peace and always being over-extended.

Closing Thoughts

There is much more to share about anxiety. When I say anxiety requires investigation, I would also include things like food sensitivities, helpful (versus unhelpful) exercise, your inner self-talk and the right career in that list. One of my clients experienced anxiety (daily, for many many weeks) because she was about to go down the wrong career path, but didn’t realize it. Once she got this aha, her anxiety disappeared.

Do you think you may be Highly Sensitive? Do you believe your body is not a random annoying clump of cells that needs to be controlled and put in its place, but rather that your own body is an intuitive and intelligent instrument that’s trying to help you? Do you have anxiety and do you want to learn more about it? Set up a 30-minute call with me here so I can put my intuition to work and we can explore what your anxiety is trying to tell you.

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