Distinguishing Anxiety from Anticipation

Mild-to-moderate anxiety and I go way, way back. I’m just one of those people whose baseline energy level hovers somewhere between “mostly good” and “sort of on edge”. More specifically, my nervous energy has always manifested itself in really, really physical ways. I’m a stomach pretzel kind of lady.

As I’ve gotten older and more in-tune with my feelings in real time, I’ve noticed something interesting: Whether the imminent thing that makes me feel unsettled is “exciting” (a first date, a new job, about to go on stage) or “scary” (a potential conflict, a doctor appointment, a difficult conversation), that twisty, churning, can’t-stay-still feeling in my stomach feels roughly the same.


It’s easy to feel powerless against that kind of physical reaction to stress, like it’s just an unfortunate thing that happens in certain situations and that you have to work around. But if you’re able to tune into your nerves and listen closely enough, you’ll notice a difference in what constitutes anxiety vs. anticipation.

Both are alike in their ability to knock you off balance emotionally, and manifest themselves physically; but if you can learn to distinguish one from the other and recognize what each feeling is trying to tell you, you can tap into something really, really powerful.

The Difference Between the Two

Both anxiety and anticipation are feelings we experience on the edge of uncertainty, and while they tend to feel physically similar, the two are separated by nuance.

Seth Godin describes anxiety as “experiencing failure in advance.”

…(head exploding).

The feeling we think of as (non-clinical) anxiety emerges when we feel unsure of an outcome and we jump to worst case scenarios. And while anticipation is another feeling we experience in the face of the unknown, anticipation happens when we’re focused more on the potential highs than the potential lows.

Feeling anxious is characterized by fearing the worst and fixating on visions of the worst possible outcomes; when we experience anticipation, on the other hand, ‘what could be’ offers a certain promise that keeps us energized and engaged, even through the fear.

Neither is better than the other, and neither is particularly comfortable. Both can be powerful if you know how to leverage them for good.

Both Feelings Can Serve You Well

Feelings of anxiety and anticipation can be productive - helpful, even! - if you can learn to treat them as cues.

I'd define anxiety as a hallmark of fear, and for me it's particularly noticeable when I feel myself starting to lose control of a situation. Often times, it can be your intuition’s way of pumping the brakes, and urging you to stop and consider the path you’re on. Is there something here that needs to be adjusted before you continue down this road? Is there an opportunity to pause, and consider pivoting in a different direction? Is there something on your plate worth removing? Is there something here you can take control of, even if that means something as simple as talking yourself through an unsettling situation with patience and compassion?

When I'm experiencing anticipation, on the other hand, it feels more like those butterflies before taking a plunge you generally feel good about. Going on a roller coaster. Interviewing for your dream job. Making an offer on a house you love. The stakes might be high and you probably don’t have total control, but that’s ok. Think of those butterflies as a signal from your intuition to push through the fear of what you can’t control, and follow through on this opportunity to grow. Anticipation can be your cue that the risk you’re about to take is probably worth taking, and it can be the little extra push to see it through whole-heartedly in spite of the fear.

My Favorite Strategies for Leveraging the Power of Anxiety and Anticipation

In the face of anxiety, try asking yourself a few questions:

  • What’s the worst case scenario here, really?
  • ...Is it really that bad?
  • How much of the situation can I control or change? Take a moment to pull back, and look for opportunities to reevaluate and change course. If there are things you have the power to change, consider changing them and what that would look like. Look honestly at the worst case scenario, as well as the best.
  • What can I focus on instead? If things are truly beyond your control, shift your focus. Take some deep breaths, and self soothe by finding something comforting and equally concrete to focus your energy on. Tell yourself what you’d tell a friend who was struggling with the same thing. Be kind to yourself.

On the other hand, if you’re on the verge of something scary and you’re feeling something that’s more along the lines of anticipation, capitalize on it by:

  • Feeling the fear, and leaning in. Anticipation is generally the kind of fear that’s far outweighed by excitement and good vibes. It’s often an indicator that you’re taking the kind of leap that’s worth taking.
  • Taking note of how it goes. Take a moment to consciously take note of how you feel during and/or after the thing that gave you the butterflies. Is an experience worth repeating? Did you grow or learn something significant? Your answers are just tools in your arsenal to calm your future fears and enhance your decision making.

As you evolve as a person and the breadth of your experiences grows, there will be moments that test your fears and push you into uncomfortable emotional territory. But knowing how to make sense of what you feel in those moments and take cues from those feelings will only help you find a course of action that feels authentic, and points you down a road that benefits you and your own personal growth.

Do you feel anxiety and/or anticipation often? How do you cope? Have you ever been able to use one or both of these feelings to your advantage? I'd love to continue the conversation on Twitter, too - come find me and let's chat!