Anxiety is a Trick
“Fear is like fire. If you can master it, it can heat your house, cook your food. But if it gets the best of you, it can burn you. You control it or it controls you.” –Alex in the HBO series, “In Treatment.”
The gift of fear
Several years ago I read Gavin deBecker’s book, “The Gift of Fear." The title refers to the intuitive ability of human beings that allows them to detect danger quickly, without conscious, logical thought. The evolutionary purpose of this fear, he explains, is to energize and motivate us to repel or flee an imminent attack by a predator. Fight or flight. The book encourages us to develop and listen to our intuition. Fear can be a friend, an important signal that something is wrong.
The broken fear barometer
That’s all well and good. But what about the person who’s fear barometer is broken? I’m referring to those unfortunate individuals who have unrelenting anxiety. Anxiety is fear, after all. For them, the fear is excessive and operates inappropriately. Their anxiety sounds an alarm in the absence of danger. It’s a false alarm, a trick of the brain. For people with anxiety, the alarm comes to be treated as the danger itself, rather than as a signal of danger.
The worst part of anxiety...
The worst part of having an anxiety disorder is not the anxiety. It’s trying NOT to be anxious. This anxiety comes to be seen as a threat. It motivates excessive self-protection. People with anxiety learn to avoid situations that may cause more anxiety.
How do you treat an anxiety disorder?
· Not be protecting yourself from unrealistic threats. You'll need to learn to stop reacting to unrealistic threats.
· Not by avoiding the anxiety. Anxiety, you see, won't really hurt you. When you learn to accept it and face it, it tends to diminish in intensity and power.
· By learning to do the exact opposite of what you have been doing.
What do you fear?
· Panic Disorder—you fear a breakdown in functioning, a permanent loss of control brought on by your inability to cope.
· Generalized Anxiety Disorder—you fear that unlikely events could actually happen! (And you worry about endless possibilities.)
· Phobias—The feared object or situation will do something to you or you will panic in response to that object.
· Social Phobia—you fear you will disgrace yourself in front of other, never have their respect or trust, and be less able to interact.
· Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder—you fear that some error, omission, or awful act of yours will lead to incalculable harm.
· Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder—you fear that you’ll be overcome by horrific memories of terrible events.
But, it’s a trick!
All of these anxiety disorders have something in common: they all trick you by giving you false signals. The fears do not provide accurate signals of danger. It's more like a scary movie. You experience discomfort, even though you know it's not real. I used to run out of scary movies as a child because I believed that I was actually in danger. As an adult, I know that I'm not in danger. It's just a movie. Still, I may not like the discomfort of a scary movie. I can either walk out or "talk myself down." The anxiety disorders fail their evolutionary purpose of preparing you for real danger. The sooner you realize this, the sooner you’ll start to get better.
And the trick makes you think it’s real.
To complicate the matter further, your creative brain provides you with a false explanation. You either think that you are weak and defective, incapable of solving your problem OR you think that the problem just can’t be solved. Others are just taking a lot of foolish risks. Both of these views are obstacles to recovery. When you're tricked into reacting inappropriately, your anxiety gains power. You have less and less control.
Give therapy a chance.
Do yourself a favor. Get into therapy and learn to eliminate anxiety. Learn to talk yourself down from anxiety. Anxiety is very treatable. Won't it be nice to not have to experience this trick ever again?