The Gift of Anxiety – Your Bodyguard or Prison Guard?

Objectives:

  • Since the body’s response to threats affects every cell in your body, it feels like part of who you are.
  • We spend a lot of time attempting to avoid this intentionally unpleasant sensation when it is necessary for life and also overpowering.
  • We are trapped in life by our anxieties.
  • The first step in dealing with anxiety is to separate your identity from it and view it as a gift. It is what you have and not who you are.
  • Once you have achieved this separation (an ongoing dynamic process), you will be able to move forward into the life that you want.

 

Life depends on our brains receiving sensory input from multiple sources and interpreting the sum total as safe or dangerous. Under threat, you’ll initially become nervous and then anxious. We are compelled to take action to resolve the problem. If the solution is delayed, your body will kick in more adrenaline and cortisol, and you’ll become angry. These unpleasant neurochemical reactions and resultant behaviors increase the odds of survival. However, it is the most anxious/angry groups of humans who have flourished.

Anxiety – from just thoughts??

Imagine yourself on the fourth day of your Hawaiian vacation, lying on a tropical beach in the sun. You are full of anti-inflammatory proteins called cytokines, oxytocin, dopamine, serotonin, and a few other chemicals that cause you to you feel relaxed. Now visualize yourself on the same beach and suddenly you recall how your difficult boss walked in and began yelling at you. Your heart starts to race, your skin becomes clammy, and your breathing speeds up. How to you feel? Even though you’re on the same beach and in the sun in both of these scenarios,  you now feel uncomfortable and agitated. But your boss isn’t there, so why is this happening? It is another aspect of “the curse of conscious” in addition to the obsessive thought patterns. Unpleasant thoughts are threats that are unique to being human and create the same flight or fight physiological response as physical threats.

 

 

We are defining thoughts as sensory input and that are separate from emotions that represent the feelings generated by your body’s response. Remember, you are FEELING agitated and upset, not just thinking about it. When anxiety caused by a real threat, it is a gift. When it appears out nowhere, you are disconnected from the cues from your immediate environment. The term for this situation is a “dysregulated” nervous system.

Relax?

There are a couple of other problematic scenarios that occur in your conscious brain that are disruptive. One is that when you are relaxing, your brain has fewer distractions. People often feel more anxiety when they are trying to relax. Their normal busyness is effective in drawing attention away from these survival circuits.

It is interesting that a high percent of Americans do not take off the full time they are allotted for vacation.1 They are also pressured by their bosses to not take time off. I had a friend who could not tolerate more than three days of vacation and predictably would cut his vacation short to get back to work.

Your personal brain scanner

The other issue is that your nervous system is your personal “brain scanner.” Every second of your life depends on your brain scanning your surroundings for trouble. This unconscious process guides your behavior so as to avoid danger and maximize your chances of survival. You will become conscious of this ongoing interaction with the environment only when a given need is unmet. This is especially true for basic survival needs such as air, food, water, excretion, sleep, and not being in pain. You’ll initially become nervous and then anxious. If the solution is delayed, your body will kick in more stress hormones, and you’ll become angry. This chemical reaction and resultant behaviors increase your odds of survival. It is the most anxious groups of humans who have flourished.

Your bodyguard

Anxiety is a gift and your bodyguard. It is how we evolved and what keeps us alive. You can navigate the planet, avoid physical threats, and take on new challenges by being and remaining aware of the potential pitfalls.

 

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Your prison guard

However, when this powerful reaction becomes a part of your identity, anxiety shifts from being your bodyguard to your prison guard. It does feel like part of who we are, but it is only the survival response of your body. When your view of yourself becomes wrapped up in this reaction, you are trapped. Your life is now defined by your fears. This reaction is intended to be so uncomfortable that you are forced to take evasive action. It is also amoral. So many of the impulses feel “morally wrong” and in light of human consciousness, they are. That is why it is so critical to understand the nature of anxiety and separate from it. It is what you have, not who you are. It is universal and there is no shame in experiencing and feeling your basic urges to exist.

Separate Your Identity from Your Survival Response

Since anxiety is so powerful, necessary, and not subject to rational interventions, how can you deal with it? The first step is to separate your identity from it. Here are several suggestions.

  • Look at it as what you have but not who you are and then learning to appreciate it as a gift. You can then quit fighting it and have much more energy to live your life.
  • A second strategy is to remove the word, “anxiety,” from your vocabulary. Instead use the term, “elevated stress chemicals,” or “activated nervous system” whenever you feel nervous, agitated or afraid.
  • A third approach is to visualize a large thermometer. When you are anxious or upset, imagine how high the  red line in your thermometer is going. This visualization will help you understand the most critical step – that your anxiety is simply a universal stress response and not your identity.

 

 Word progression

There is a gradation of the intensity of this response to threats and humans use words to depict it. Here is one word progression but they all fall under the category of an activated nervous system. Anxiety is the result of a threat, not the cause.

  • Alert
  • Nervous
  • Afraid
  • Frustrated
  • Angry
  • Paranoid
  • Terrorized

Lower your stress chemicals

The most definitive strategy to lower anxiety is to use tools to dampen your stress response and also lower the levels of these hormones. There are many ways to regulate your body’s physiology that will be discussed throughout the rest of the course. These all are only effective once you have separated yourself from this basic survival response. BTW, if every living creature possesses this basic reaction, why would any of us ever take it personally?

The DOC Journey is a learned set of skills

Consider the healing process in two halves that are in dynamic balance. You’ll learn skills that separate you from anxiety and anger, but they NOT are intended to fix or solve them. That is a futile effort. Then when you are “separate” from these sensations, most of your efforts can be focused on redirecting your brain to enjoy life. You must first let go in order to move forward. The key concept is stimulating neuroplasticity in the direction that you desire. These two energies exist simultaneously and become automatic with repetition.

Recap

Our response to threats involves every cell in our body and encompasses us. It is understandable that we would feel that it is part of our identity, but it is not. When our consciousness becomes consumed with dealing with these relentless and unpleasant feelings, we are trapped. We are often not able to live the life we desire. It is critical to separate from and depersonalize this amoral survival reaction.

Strategies that can create this separation include:

  • Appreciating anxiety as a gift; it is what you possess and not who you are.
  • Replacing the word anxiety with, “activated nervous system.”
  • Visualizing a large thermometer and the temperature represents the levels of your stress hormones.

Let your bodyguard do his or her job. You can go about your business of living your life. When you separate your anxiety from your identity, you will have the freedom to evolve your consciousness in an infinite number of ways – and thrive.

References

  1. Kimble Report. No vacation nation: American workers are overworked, under pressure, and not taking time off. (2018) https://www.kimbleapps.com/2018/05/no-vacation-nation-american-workers-are-overworked-under-pressure-and-not-taking-time-off/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Let your bodyguard do his or her job. You can go about your business of living your life. When you separate your anxiety from your identity, you will have the freedom to evolve your consciousness in an infinite number of ways – and thrive.