Is that a bear?

Is that a bear? And other musings about anxiety.

Raise your hand if you “have” anxiety.

Every single one of you might have your hand in the air because we all “have” anxiety. In reality, it is one of our most primitive emotions and exists to keep us safe. Anxiety is the feeling in the pit of your stomach that tells you “maybe it is not a good idea to walk down that dark alley by myself.” Anxiety is what made our cave man and cave woman selves sit up and say “is that a bear I hear?” It is in all of us. For some of us, however, anxiety becomes seemingly unmanageable and begins to have an adverse effect on our lives rather than to simply serve its purpose.

I like to reframe my thoughts around anxiety to reflect the idea that I experienced intense levels of anxiety, rather than I “have” anxiety or I “am” anxious. I don’t need to take ownership of it and it is not who I am, it is simply something that I experience. When I do that, when I reframe it that way, it allows me to look at it from a more logical perspective rather than an emotional one. That, in turn, helps me to better take care of myself when I am experiencing those intense levels of anxiety that I mentioned earlier. What it really allows me to do is to notice if this feeling is justified or not.

Emotions are all valid. Every single one of them begin somewhere and can be traced back to something.

They always make sense if you can find the trail. Emotions are not always justified. When I say that, what I mean is that they do not always fit what is actually happening in the moment. Anxiety (and depression to be honest, but that is a different post) is more often than not about what has happened in the past or what might happen in the future than it is about what is actually happening right now.   When I have the ability to step back from owning anxiety, I can ask “is this justified?” By that I mean “am I actually perfectly safe right now?” If I am not safe, then I can make the choice to not walk down that dark alley. If I am safe, I can maybe explore where that feeling is coming from. What happened the last time I was in this situation? What am I assuming is going to happen in this situation? How is that connected to what is actually happening in this situation?

I think that anxiety is easier to navigate when what we are talking about is physical safety.

When it is a dark alley or a bear trying to attack our caves, we engage our fear response and, in an instant, are acting to fight the threat, flee from the threat or freeze and hope that the threat does not notice us. What is not as easy to navigate is when that threat is in the category of emotional, social or intellectual safety. When what we are talking about is our impression of acceptance from another person, fear of judgement or how we will be interpreted.  What is important to note, however, is that the human brain does not have the ability to discern between physical, social, emotional and intellectual threats. We begin to go into the same fight, flight or freeze when the threat is a bully, the potential end of a relationship or a big presentation-it just looks different.

Fighting a bear is very different than fighting the potential end of a relationship. Turning away from a dark alley is very different than calling in sick on presentation day. When we protect ourselves physically, the result is safety, however, when we protect ourselves emotionally, socially or intellectually, the result is often conflict in our relationships with friends, family, co workers, etc. This, in turn, CAUSES MORE ANXIETY! It is in these situations that anxiety is usually the most unjustified. We begin to feel that pit in our stomach when someone looks at us in a way that reminds us that bully, or that relationship. When your teacher or boss starts talking about that big presentation that you are certain you will fail at.  It is quite the cycle.

This is why it is so important to notice when you are experiencing anxiety.

Just notice. Don’t judge it and don’t own it as who you are as a person. What does it feel like in your body? What are the thoughts associated with it? What are the behaviors that seem to happen automatically? This will help you be able to recognize that you are experiencing anxiety and ask yourself “is this justified?” If the answer is yes, allow the emotion to serve it’s purpose and keep you safe. If the answer is no, that is when we can engage in those coping skills that allow us to tolerate the distress and the emotion to dissipate. Awareness is half the battle.


With Gratitude, Jessica Brubaker

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