It begins with a common theme – fear. Fear of the unknown, fear that it will happen again, the constant what-ifs, the catastrophizing, the negative debilitating assumptions, all the thinking traps and negative cognitions. In the end, what really gets you is the fear of fear itself.
Due to the belly-clenching, chest-constricting, physical-effects of anxiety, most people have developed an extreme negative relationship with it…something to be avoided at all costs. The very thought of having anxiety becomes the ultimate terror.
Biological Roots of Anxiety
In reality, we always have a low level of anxiety humming within us at all times. We are hardwired for it. The brain is programmed for safety first. It is what kept our ancestors, the Neanderthals, alive. The fight, flight, freeze response was critical to their existence since they never knew when they would need to run away from or fight off a saber-tooth tiger or other danger, which assumedly was quite often.
Of course, our environment today is not as dangerous (though some may disagree), but we are still programmed to launch into this emergency, life-protecting mode every time we feel threatened. It is a good thing, for the most part. We may not need to run away from hungry prehistoric creatures anymore, but that fight, flight response will most certainly come in handy if or when we come across a pack of wild dogs that aren’t happy with our scent, or if you suddenly had to save yourself or your family from a burning structure.
Without our innate, instinctual, physiological response to feeling threatened, we would probably not survive. Without it we would cross the street without looking both ways and possibly become roadkill, or burn ourselves while cooking, unconcerned about touching hot pots. Without low-level anxiety, we would be terrible, reckless drivers and probably lose our license or our lives. Anxiety is our friend. It keeps us safe. Without it, who knows what kind of trouble we would fall into? Isn’t that a good enough reason to rethink our view of it? If we were to change or alter our relationship with anxiety, from avoiding it at all costs to embracing it, or at the very least tolerating it, would the need for Xanax still exist?
Learning to work with Anxiety
That may seem like a tall order, but the possibility for observing and bearing witness to the anxiety we experience instead of spiraling into a thunderstorm of uncomfortable feelings is what Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is all about. I think of it more as “clinical coaching,” teaching the skills, acquiring the tools, and building the mental muscle needed to engage in the task of managing anxiety at any given time. It will happen! You can’t prevent it, so why not find a way to cohabitate with it?
There are many different approaches in our attempt to tame our anxiety but almost all involve management of the physical symptoms and the mental/emotional turmoil. Starting with the basic idea that what we think generates how we feel, we learn and become acquainted with our habitual cognitive patterns. We then examine them in a systematic way to determine their validity and either negate them or re-frame them.
Understand that this very process engages the pre-frontal cortex of the brain (the newer, thinking part), which slows down the amygdala (the primitive, emotional part of the brain), which is in full throttle when you are in a high state of anxiety. Additionally, the fight-flight response that has you feeling that you may be dying, or at the very least fainting, will always respond positively to certain physiological changes such as taking slow, deliberate, full-body breaths.
To understand how this works is to have some knowledge about what is going on in your body when you feel scared and threatened. Without getting too technical, suffice it to say that adrenaline and other stress hormones, and their effects of increased heart rate and elevated blood pressure (which may also feel like symptoms of a heart attack or stroke), are needed to send blood to your muscles so you can either fight or run for your life. Of course, if it is only perceived threat, you are then left with the physical symptoms that add to your original fear. By the way, the fight-flight response is common to all animals but only humans go there with only imagined fear…and what imaginations we have!
The fortune telling and catastrophizing we do as we imagine the worst case scenario about future events is amazing. The perfect reframe for that is for us to remember that it is not possible for us to predict the future. Despite how much we want to, our crystal ball does not exist. It is just not possible, but that knowledge does not stop us or even slow us down. We spiral into worry as if it is our main job. It’s a safety thing. Our brains are hardwired for it.
We feel that if we are prepared for the worst case scenario we will be able to mitigate it and survive. The problem with that is that it keeps us living in the future, which prevents us from living and enjoying the present moment. Worrying about tomorrow’s problems does not solve them, it only takes away today’s joy. And here enters Mindfulness…another useful tool to add to our tool box for managing anxiety. Training ourselves to stay in the moment and to be aware of when we time travel forward, and then consciously backpedaling into the present, is something we are all capable of doing and learning, and with practice we can become quite skillful at it.
Awareness is the key. We are all quite capable of rewiring our brain and learning to set our minds at ease. The good news is that once learned, it cannot be unlearned. Just like riding a bike… after the first wobbly moments you’re off and flying into a better peace of mind.
Anxiety and fear are just one of the many emotions we as humans experience. None of them last…they come and go with regularity. It is our thinking that generates the emotions, so if your anxiety or any other uncomfortable emotion is lingering longer than you may want, stop recycling the same thoughts.
When we embrace the knowledge that we are not our thoughts or emotions, that they are just something we are experiencing in the moment, we can have a more benevolent attitude towards them. “That which you resist persists,” so it makes sense that the acceptance of anxiety along with skillful management of its symptoms is your key to freedom.