Your heart is pounding, your palms are sweaty, you’re short of breath and you’d like to either scream or jump up and down.  Bad news: your company just announced another wave of lay-offs and you wonder if you’re about to lose your job.

Your heart is pounding, your palms are sweaty, you’re short of breath and you’d like to either scream or jump up and down.  Good news: you’re strapped into your seat, having a great time spinning through the air on the Zipper carnival ride at the Sonoma County Fair.

Wait a minute.  How can your body respond in almost exactly the same way to two very dissimilar situations?  How can the sensations aroused by two distinctly different emotions feel so much the same?

The two distinctly different emotions I’m talking about are anxiety and excitement.  In her recent Psychology Today article, “Make Your Own Luck”, (which I’ve been blogging about recently), author Rebecca Webber makes five suggestions for making the most of the unexpected, fortuitous events that cross our life-paths.  To start off her discussion about point #3, “Say Yes”, Webber makes the observation that anxiety and excitement, or intrigue, are connected.

When a “juicy” opportunity comes along, Webber states, we can be “immediately besieged by two competing emotions: intrigue and anxiety.”  “You’re curious about that job opening,” she continues, “but you can think of a hundred reasons why you should stick with your current gig.”

When we encounter something new, each of us instinctively responds in similar ways.  Since the new person, place, event, or idea could possibly be either good news or bad news, our minds and bodies go on alert in order to assess the situation.  The phone rings; the caller ID is unfamiliar.  We say hello cautiously and hear the voice of an old friend we haven’t heard from for awhile.  We relax; all is well – very good in fact.

Or, the caller on the other end of the line is a bill collector, threatening to repossess our car.  Our initial alert status goes into fully-armored protection mode.  We need all our wits and defenses instantly operational to respond to this attack.

One of the consequences of unresolved painful issues in life – past trauma that has not healed – is that our ability to accurately “read” possibly threatening situations gets damaged.  Opportunities and fortunate events can look like danger to avoid, and, conversely, dangerous situations can masquerade as harmless and benign.  Trauma damages our emotional “radar” such that we have trouble seeing reality the way it really is.

But we can make an effort to counteract our overly fearful or cautious tendencies if we are aware of them.  Can we prime ourselves to be more open to serendipity – to fortuitous chance?  Webber points out in her article that “serendipitous people are more fearless about trying something new.  Instead of giving in to worry about what could go wrong, they think, ‘Isn’t that interesting?  I’d like to give that a try.’”

I agree strongly with her next statement: “Good outcomes increase self-efficacy, or the belief that you are capable of accomplishing whatever you set out to do; they also fuel an appetite for future risk.”  I would translate this by saying that every time you challenge yourself to take a promising risk, and are able to make it work out well for you, it will get easier to tackle the next attractive opportunity.

I see this happen all the time with my patients: the ones who improve their lives and relationships are the ones who motivate themselves to move through their fear and anxiety to discover excitement and joy.  Sometimes they stumble, sometimes they misread situations, but they also make incredible strides forward into the lives they’ve always dreamed of living.

So, the next time a heart-pounding, sweaty-palm moment comes your way, ask yourself, “Am I anxious, or excited?  Which response does this new situation call for?”  Is it good news or bad news?  If there’s any way it could be good news, take the risk.  Step out.  Don’t wait to feel comfortable.  Faced with the new, the exciting, or the unexpected, waiting to feel comfortable is a dead end.  Stay on track, don’t get stuck, and embrace our unpredictable, uncontrollable, but infinitely wonderful world.