How similar are fear and excitement?

Bodily Maps of Emotions

Lately I’ve been paying attention to a certain physical sensation that I associate with fear and an aversive response. It’s a sensation I feel in my middle chest, in a shape like a narrow flower vase running from my stomach to just below my neck.

This feeling comes on when I’m overwhelmed, or when I fear I might lose something that I care about, or might risk something important.

My reaction, if I’m not mindful, is to distract myself. I might go on Reddit, or start playing a mobile game. Or I might work, or get lost in some worry.

As I’ve been paying attention to this sensation, and watching my response, I’ve begun to get a clearer understanding of when it arises.

And today, I realized something important. This physical sensation in my chest is nearly identical to the physical sensations I feel when I’m experiencing excitement. In both cases, it feels like the same activation.

This is important. Because if I see that sensation just as fear, then the only response called for is to attend to it and to help it diminish. But if it’s also interpretable as excitement, then I may not want it to diminish; I may even want to lean into it.

And if I see it as fear but really it’s excitement — which arises when I’m faced with the opportunity to get something that some part of me really wants — then I will take action to reduce that feeling, which means reducing exposure to the thing I’m excited about. Which means systematically avoiding the things I care most about.

I suspect that this isn’t far from the truth.