Everybody talks about anxiety these days. But what exactly is anxiety?
While there are many ways to define it, we like to use a single, simple definition:
It’s the feeling of feeling unsafe.
When we talk about fear, or feeling afraid, it’s almost always a fear of something specific and tangible. You’re afraid of the dark, for example, or public speaking, or death, or spiders. But anxiety is a more fundamental feeling that you’re not safe, regardless of the circumstances. For some reason you feel like something bad – you’re not sure what – is going to happen to you.
While we usually think of anxiety as emotional or psychological, it’s almost always a very physical, visceral experience. Because you feel unsafe, your body reacts exactly as it would if you really were in danger. Your heart rate and blood pressure increase, your breathing gets shallower, and blood is sent from your stomach to your limbs to prepare you to run. You go on “red alert,” scanning for danger.
These physical feelings of being in danger then signal your mind to think thoughts of “I’m unsafe, I’m in danger.” These thoughts, in turn, send messages back to the body to intensify the physical feeling of red alert. That’s why anxiety attacks and panic attacks – and even more typical anxiety reactions – can come on so quickly and be so overwhelming.
Why does this happen? Because keeping you safe – that is, alive and unharmed – is your body’s prime directive. The fear circuits are very well-developed. They’ve been streamlined to work extremely quickly and strongly – much more quickly than our rational minds.
Anxiety, then, can be set off whenever we feel physically unsafe for no clear reason. But it also gets set off – perhaps even more often – when we feel emotionally unsafe.
Why does this happen? Even though we’ve been told by our culture that “mature” adults don’t “need” other people, the truth is, we human beings, whether we’re five or 75, are hard-wired to depend on the people closest to us to help us survive. For that reason, feeling that we are unacceptable to the people whom we depend upon – or that they’ll desert us if we ever really need them – sets off the same kind of danger signals as hearing the footsteps of a tiger in the bushes. We don’t feel safe emotionally.
What can you do if you feel chronically anxious, and either physically or emotionally unsafe? Here are some tips:
Say hello to your anxiety
Feeling unsafe is a scary emotion! You may tend to either get overwhelmed by your feelings, or else try to tell yourself not to feel that way. But red alert feelings don’t just go away. They think they’re your loyal bodyguard sworn to keep you alive. Who are you to tell them to put down their guard? Tell them to go away and they just might lock you up for your own safety.
So you must first acknowledge them. Say to yourself, “I’m anxious. That must mean I’m feeling unsafe.” Notice, when you do this, that you get a little bit of a “click” inside, a little bit of easing, like your bodyguard relaxed a little.
If you have big physical sensations, notice them too. Talk to yourself about what you’re feeling. It will help them not be so overwhelming. If you’re in private, describe what you’re physically feeling out loud. “I’m noticing my heart is beating fast. I’m noticing my breath is short. And there’s a tight pain in my chest.”
There’s a natural tendency to be afraid of these sensations, because if you really were in danger, these sensations would be indicating a life-or-death situation. Not to mention they can get rather unpleasant! But if you’re not in any immediate physical danger, you can “ride” the feelings. Notice them, let them rise and fall. You’re on your own roller coaster! In his first Inaugural address, President Franklin Roosevelt said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” We’d like to amend that a bit and say, “The only thing you have to fear is the fear of fear.” See if you can feel the fearful sensations and not fear them.
Notice, also, what “movie” is playing in your mind. You may have vivid images and stories about what’s going to happen. Notice what the movie is telling you.
Listen to your bodyguard
If your bodyguard is warning you of danger, you have to listen to what it has to say. Is it afraid of many things? Is it telling you that a lot of bad things are going to happen? Go ahead. Let it tell you what it’s protecting you from. Then thank it for its loyal service in working to protect you.
In fact, you might want to take out a notebook, a tablet or just a piece of paper, and write down what it told you, like you would if you were dealing with a real security guard who was informing you of potential dangers.
Time to soothe your bodyguard
But here’s the thing. Your bodyguard may be correct that you’re in danger. Or it may not. Believing your bodyguard unquestioningly is probably not going to help you.
Because your bodyguard may not be a smart, 6’6” guy in sunglasses and a headset tuned into headquarters. It could be your inner six-year-old self.
What do you do with six-year-olds who are afraid of the dark and monsters under the bed?
You don’t say “Don’t be silly! There are no monsters under the bed. Go to sleep right now, or else!”
You listen to their fear. You turn on the light. You look under the bed, and maybe invite them to look with you. Perhaps you check behind the wall posters, too, and leave a dim night light on. And you reassure them calmly and soothingly. “I don’t see any monsters. But don’t worry – if anything scary comes around, we’re right here to protect you.”
If you’re a grownup, you can do that to your inner self. Acknowledge the fear, then realistically reassure yourself. “You can tell the very anxious part of you, “Yes, some things are scary. I know I’m afraid of losing my job, but realistically that’s not likely to happen. And even if it did happen, we’re still going to be okay.” Then say out loud to yourself the reasons you know you’ll be okay, even if the fearful part of you doesn’t feel it.
If you do this, take a moment to notice how the anxious feelings calm down a little.
Create an emotional safety net around you
The best way to feel safe is to have emotionally safe people in your life. That’s part of our basic blueprint as human beings.
Emotionally safe people are people whom you can turn to when you feel vulnerable, and with whom you don’t feel afraid to be yourself.
Unfortunately, when people feel chronically emotionally unsafe, their inner bodyguard gets extremely protective. The prime directive, remember, is survival. So, taking the attitude of “better safe than sorry,” the bodyguard sees practically everyone as dangerous, and either stays away from them or pushes them away. The problem is, by never allowing anyone to feel truly “safe” to you, your bodyguard prevents you from getting the one thing that would give you a sense of emotional safety.
So creating an emotional safety net is both an “inside” and an “outside” task: Finding some people who are emotionally safe, but also recognizing the people who can (or want to) be emotionally safe, and taking small risks to build your circle of safety.
Want to learn more about how to create an emotional safety net for yourself? Click here for four tips to help get you started.
great article/chapter! very clear, well written, non-jargony. Sorry, I’ve been so slow in reading your work and I will try to catch up and read the other chapters. I haven’t read yet.