A psychotherapist explains the crucial difference between fear and worry – and why it matters

Fear is a thorny human emotion: it can keep you safe, but it can also keep you too safe. It can completely paralyze you and block your potential.

But it’s useful and necessary. Unlike worry, which is a complete waste of time.

In a brilliant article for Thrive Global, psychotherapist Katherine Schafler explains why it’s okay to be afraid but not okay to worry.

She makes an excellent case.

Schafler starts with the premise that fear is natural and healthy:

“It’s okay to be afraid that something will or won’t ever happen. It’s okay to be invested in your life and encounter the feelings of:

I’m scared this relationship/job/confidence/new weight I’ve worked so hard to build is going to somehow break…

I’m scared I’m never going to find my person…

I’m scared my person is going to leave me…

I’m scared I’m going to lose all my financial security…”

Here’s the thing: It’s not only okay to encounter these fears, it’s inevitable.

Being human and facing what we do on a daily basis, it’s impossible not to feel afraid. That’s natural and can’t be avoided.

It’s not the fear that’s the problem; the problem is being afraid of the fear itself. When we start hiding our fears from ourselves instead of building a tolerance for a healthy, natural amount of fear, we unconsciously turn toward avoidant behaviors that mess everything up, says Schafler.

One such avoidant behaviour is worry.

It works like this:

“You worry to distract yourself from feeling the fear. To distract yourself from accepting that there are some aspects of life that are out of your control. To distract yourself from accepting that yes, you’re taking a risk and yes, you might get hurt.”

According to Schafler, worrying only pretends to be necessary, but it’s neither proactive nor helpful.

Worrying is really bad: it uses your imagination to exploit your fears, making them seem worse than they actually are.

Worrying is focusing your thoughts on all possible negative outcomes rather than applying that same energy towards solving whatever the problem is. Instead of wasting time worrying about something, you could use your time and energy to find a solution. If there’s no solution, you’d better accept things as they are.

Fears need a combination of acceptance and reassuring self-talk to be managed, says Schafler.

This is her point: The energy you direct towards your thoughts and feelings is what feeds your state of mind; you can either use your energy to manage your natural fears, or exploit them with worry.

You can think of worrying as turning the volume all the way up on your fears, so loud it’s deafening. In other words, the more you worry, the more fearful you become.

Worry really doesn’t do anything useful; it just broadcasts your fears to the only person in the audience until that becomes the overwhelming perspective.

Schafler describes worrying as unproductive negative thinking. We all know the drill. It’s the “what if” kind of thinking. What if my boss gets angry, what it I lose my job, what if I can’t pay the rent, what if I get sick, what if the stock market falls, what if…

Schafler contrasts fear and worry neatly, so we can clearly see the difference:

  • Fear is unavoidable, worry is avoidable.
  • Fear is deep, worry is shallow.
  • Fear is powerful and any power can be harnessed positively. Worry is weak and can’t be harnessed productively.
  • Fear guides you towards personal growth and an expansion of the heart–accepting fear is rewarded with greater possibilities. Worry guides you towards insularity and shrinks your ability to connect to others–accepting worry is ‘rewarded’ with greater anxiety.
  • Fear is healthy. Worry makes you sick.

Schafler reminds us that we are all afraid of something. The secret is not to deny the fact, but to find a way to be with our fear.

It is our resistance to the fear via worry, not the fear itself that is our problem.

If you are going through a difficult time filled with fear, find support, and direct your energy towards creative solutions, assurance, and acceptance. Whatever you do, don’t deny that you are afraid.

Schafler reminds us that the most successful people in life don’t live without fear. They just don’t make an enemy out of their fear.

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