Learning to Identify When It’s Anxiety, and When It’s Not

It’s much more acceptable to show anxiety than anger.

Posted May 31, 2018

Big Stock Images
Source: Big Stock Images

Anxiety is a tricky emotion. What might at first feel like anxiousness can, on more in-depth exploration, turn out to be a different emotion entirely. And what might feel like an uplifting emotion such as motivation can reveal its true self—anxiety—after some reflection.

When It Feels Like Anxiety but Isn’t

In our culture, it’s much more acceptable to show anxiety than anger. When you hear someone say “I’m so stressed right now” your likely instinct is to cheer them on. They’re stressed, so they must be really busy and accomplishing a lot! If someone says, “I feel anxious right now,” you may go into soothe-mode and ask what you can do to help. But say “I feel really angry” or “I’m so pissed off right now,” and everyone around you will instantly recoil. So one of the things people do in our anger-avoiding culture is let anxiety take the place of their angry feelings.

When you replace anger with anxiety it’s inauthentic because it’s a defense against owning up to your fury. For example, you may be angry at a parent for letting you down or your partner for not meeting your needs, and you are afraid to express it for fear of threatening an important relationship. As a result, you may unconsciously transform your rage into anxiety. You feel jumpy, your thoughts race, you worry constantly.

To discover if beneath your anxiety lies anger, the next time you feel very anxious, take some time to check in with yourself and explore your emotions. Breathe and let your feelings rise and evolve. See if the anxiety leads to anger.

When It Doesn’t Feel Like Anxiety but Is

Many emotions affect us psychologically and physiologically so similarly that we sometimes confuse them. On my website, I offer an emotions word list to show how many different ways one can feel a single root emotion. For example, feeling anxious, desperate, nervous, shocked, or threatened are all symptoms of fear. Fear falls under the category “Uncomfortable Emotions.”

Then there are “Comfortable Emotions” like happiness, enthusiasm, and love. Fervent, excited, motivated, and powered up are all things you might feel when your root emotion is enthusiasm. What happens to your body when you’re excited? Your heart speeds up, your mind races, you can’t sit still. Do those sound like sensations you might also feel when you’re afraid? If your answer is “yes,” becoming sensitive to the nuances in your emotions will be vital in identifying the emotional fuel that’s motivating you to act in any given moment or circumstance.

Is your drive to do something reactive, based on anxiety, or proactive, based on passion? Both can feel like tension in your body—one in the form of fear and the other enthusiasm. Recognizing the subtle distinctions between emotions will give you a greater sense of your experience and more abundant knowledge of yourself. And, very importantly, because the role of emotions is to drive behavior, knowing more precisely what you feel will also inform you about how you’d like to act.

If you mistake anxiety for motivation, you will neglect to perform the necessary reflection and self-care required to treat your underlying fear. Do you know people with immensely successful careers, always striving and moving forward, but their personal lives are a mess—acrimonious divorces, ruined friendships? People like that are often full of fear, and instead of addressing what they’re afraid of, they treat fear like it’s motivation. This may be great for their bank accounts, but their well-being suffers. The goal isn’t to have it all and be miserable, right?

Getting to know yourself better … becoming more authentic by paying attention to your body’s sensations and to what thoughts lead to what actions, you can learn to tell the difference between anxiety and other emotions. Then you’ll know when to ride a wave of motivation, and when to take a hot bubble bath. You'll know when to say, “I’m so stressed out right now” and accept that nice glass of wine, and when to say, “I’m angry, and I want to talk about why.”