Imagine you are walking through the woods and you come face to face with bear. What do you feel? Your heart races, your breathing gets shallow, and your muscles tense as your glands dump adrenaline and cortizol into your blood stream. Your body goes into fight or flight mode as it prepares to defend itself or run away. Given the situation, this is a normal – and healthy – reaction to a dangerous situation.
Anxiety, stress, fear.
All emotions that are tied to our sense of safety. All emotions that tend to be uncomfortable. All emotions that in their place serve a healthy purpose of keeping us safe, but when they begin to overpower us they can be debilitating to our well being.
I love using the bear stories to talk about anxiety and fear. It draws out a number of aspects of these emotions that help provide different ways to think about the emotion.
Now imagine you are walking in the woods and you think you hear a bear over the next hill. You freeze, listening intensely for any sign of a massive beast coming towards you. What do you feel now? Likely the exact same sensations as if you were face to face with a bear.
Often I have clients come into my office struggling with an anxiety. Whether this is a diagnosed condition such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a specific phobia, any number of other diagnosis, or the un-diagnosed “worrier” that is having trouble sleeping, the common complaint is that worrying is taking over their life and they want it to stop. They feel powerless to manage their stress and work tirelessly to try to stop worrying.
Next, imagine you are walking through the woods and you are noticing the sunshine, the beautiful flowers, and the birds singing. You are relaxed as you enjoy the peaceful atmosphere. Unfortunately, the sound of the waterfall in the distance covers the sound of the lumbering bear that was hiding behind a bluff and comes up behind you after you pass… You don’t ever become afraid, because you aren’t aware of your danger.
Worry stress and anxiety are part of our emotional responses. They are part of who we are, and in fact, are there for our safety and protection. If we are standing on the edge of a cliff, fear helps us pay attention and make sure we don’t step off by accident. Or, if there is a bear, the adrenaline gives the ability to run to safety a little faster.
Standing in a zoo, you look through the fence at a 300 lb mother bear. You’re so close that you can count her teeth as she looks you over deciding if you are a threat.
As you sift through and compare these scenarios, one of the things to notice is that your feeling of fear is tied to your perception of danger rather than the reality of the situation.
The first step in learning to manage your anxiety is to be able to identify if there is indeed a real threat. Too often, people that suffer from anxiety attempt to turn off or ignore the emotion altogether. But you don’t want to ignore real danger. Give yourself permission to worry, but when you do, be sure to consider what the danger is. Be honest in asking yourself if there is danger in whatever you are worried about. Whether that is related to losing your job, getting sick, the safety of a loved one, or getting eaten by a bear, before you can dismiss a worry, you need to decide if it is a real threat.
Of course this leads to the next question. My fear does not represent a real threat, but I’m still anxious. Now what?
I will attempt to answer that with another post in which I will describe how a client suffering with OCD and hoarding tendencies overcame a fear of going into her garage. She had been unable to enter her garage in over 10 years.
In the meantime, if you are feeling worried, anxious, fearful, ask yourself… “Where’s the bear?”