What IS anxiety, REALLY? And why do we “get” anxiety in the first place?
Living organisms are engineered and programmed for survival. Evolved, conscious beings, such as humans, are capable of two things: protecting ourselves to ensure our survival, and growing; activating our creative potential. When our body perceives a threat, whether real or perceived, it enters protection mode. There is no room for growth when we are busy trying to save our life.
Fear: Our body’s way of letting us know it thinks our survival is threatened (i.e. we’re dying…now!).
When we send our body the signal that we are in danger, it doesn’t ask us if we are certain of this impending danger. It doesn’t have time! It needs to save our life and goes straight to action. It reacts the same way whether the threat is real or perceived.
Anxiety: The presence of fear in the absence of true danger.
Most negative emotions are actually rooted in fear, and most fear in our modern society is the result of a perceived threat, and not an actual danger. Think of anger. Anger is impossible in the absence of fear. When we get angry, there is always something to lose, which makes us feel threatened. Then we get mad as an attempt to defend whatever it is that is being threatened. It could be our money, our job, our children,… It could also be our pride, our sense of control, our dignity, our reputation, …
In any case, anger is a manifestation of fear. And since the threat we are reacting to is not actually imminent and about to kill us, chronic anger is mainly a manifestation of anxiety. Other, perhaps more obvious expressions are the inability to think clearly, to move freely, to breathe deeply, the desire to flee, and if sustained long enough, physical illness.
So how does this make any sense? Why would I experience extreme fear when there is no real danger? No real threat? Why would my body think my life is in danger if my personal dignity or my pride is threatened?
The simple answer is that your body thinks your life is in danger, and it thinks it is protecting you by prompting you to have this extreme and debilitating reaction. Let me explain.
Imagine that when Sally was little, she got in trouble from her parents for asking questions, for making a mess, for voicing an opinion, for simply being around, for being a burden, really. From her parents’ actions, Sally received the message that it was best to make herself invisible. Today, she finds herself in situations where instead of participating in discussions and voicing her opinions, she shrinks back and become invisible. Or worse yet, Sally desperately wants to be a loving and caring mother but despite her best intentions, she continuously snaps at her kids, later regrets it, and can’t believe she snapped again after promising herself it would be different next time. As it turns out, with their actions, Sally’s kids question her authority, her judgement, her worth, and her rules, reminding Sally’s subconscious mind of her childhood — of not being heard nor seen, and having to make herself invisible. In those moments, despite her best motherly intentions, her body reacts as though her children were a threat to her survival. It’s no wonder Sally can’t keep it together! Now, why would your subconscious mind have engrained such a limiting belief into the core of your being? Well, it is actually doing you a favour, or at least it thinks so. Again, it thinks it is saving your life. Let’s break this down.
When you are little, you depend on your parents (or main caregivers) for food, shelter, clothes, and boundaries that keep you safe in the big and mysterious world. For many foundational years, your parents ARE your source of survival. As humans, who do we take care of? Who do we keep alive? That’s right, the ones we love. Now, if being present, having a voice, making a mess, or asking a question upset your parents, the message your subconscious mind likely received was “if I make myself seen, the love from my parents will be less, therefore my likelihood of survival will decrease”. The conclusion to that statement would be “Being invisible makes me more lovable, thus SAFER in the world”. Great strategy! At the time! Now, as an adult, this learning of your subconscious mind is nothing but a limiting belief that stunts your personal growth and that prevents you from seeing your true worth, and your true value. So either you will keep yourself invisible, or you will attack the threat (likely in anger) if someone dares make you feel that way.
To conclude this hypothetical return into childhood, we have, at some point in time, been led to believe that we were less than loveable. And we fell for it. We do not love ourselves as much or as fully as we deserve. We have limiting beliefs about ourselves, and we stunt our personal growth by extension. As a result, we live in fear when there is no real danger, when in fact, if we let go of this outdated, useless fear, our ability to handle day-to-day situations, solve problems, create opportunity, and see love would be greatly enhanced.
So, from our earlier negative life experiences, our subconscious mind has learned reactions that helped make our survival in this world more likely when we were little, vulnerable, and depended on adults for safety. The problem is, our subconscious mind still uses those same reactions now, even though that threat is long gone.
Getting back to the definitions of fear and anxiety we started with, when we experience fear (whether in response to a real threat or a perceived threat), one of three things can happen, called the Fight, Flight, Freeze (FFF) response:
Fight: Organs, blood flow, hormones…, use all of our resources to optimize physical conditions to maximize our strength and agility for a successful attack on the threat.
Flight: Organs, blood flow, hormones…, use all of our resources to optimize physical conditions to maximize our ability to flee the threat as fast as we can.
Freeze: Complete shutdown, access to no resources. Our body is immobilized in surrender or in the hope that the threat either doesn’t see us or loses interest since we appear dead.
In all three cases, ALL of our resources are used up to keep us alive. So if you’ve ever wondered why you can’t think straight when you’re stressed, or say things you later regret when you’re angry, there is an answer. The fear response you are experiencing prepares your body in one of the three above ways to keep you alive, leaving no energy to access the logical part of your brain, the one that contains your conscious thoughts and behaviours, the one that allows you to act “civilized”.
So, in the presence of true danger, say a lion encounter, the FFF response could, in fact, save our life. In the absence of true threat, the FFF depletes us of all of our resources…for no good reason. And if we are in a state of anxiety most of the time, our energy is constantly busy protecting us. It is thus unavailable to absorb life-sustaining nutrients from the environment, to activate the perfect synchronous dance of our systems and organs to fuel us with the ingested nutrients and eliminate toxins from our blood stream. It is unavailable to generate new healthy cells to replace the old ones. It is unavailable for growth! This near-constant unavailability of life-sustaining resources eventually takes its toll on our immune system and leads to disease.
If that’s not enough, the energetic vibrational frequency of emotional states can now be measured. Love is found on the highest frequency, while fear is found on the lowest (22nd) frequency . Living in a perpetual state of anxiety, we are essentially cut off from experiencing the love that we truly are. It leaves little wonder as to why there is such a close relationship between anxiety and depression. How could long-term anxiety not end in depression and illness?
So to get back to the beginning, when our body perceives a threat, whether real or perceived, it enters protection mode. There is no room for growth when we are busy trying to save our life.