Anxiety—Prison Guard or Bodyguard?
Anxiety both protects and traps you, but you have a choice.
Posted Nov 23, 2019
Anxiety keeps us alive. It describes the sensations of the powerful neurochemical survival reaction that exists within every living creature. Animals who did not pay attention to these danger signals didn’t survive.
As you are sitting reading this article, you are amongst the most anxious of species that have ever lived. The survival of the fittest only partially describes our existence. Anxiety is your bodyguard. You are able to navigate this planet, avoiding physical threats, and take on new challenges by being and remaining aware of potential pitfalls.
But it is not who you are as a person. It is universal, amoral, and doesn’t differentiate anyone. But since it is such a strong sensation, it does feel as if it is much of our identity. Although it is at the center of our existence, it is not the core of what makes you a unique person.
When this powerful reaction is part of defining you, it shifts from being your bodyguard to your prison guard. You are trapped because your life is now defined by your anxieties. Why?
Because threatening and unpleasant thoughts are processed in the same region of the brain as a physical threat, and you can’t escape your thoughts. Any unpleasant thought is met with a protective chemical reaction, regardless of how we deal with them. Suffering or suppressing them is ineffective. Masking anxiety manifests in many different forms of addiction. So, every human is exposed to sustained, elevated levels of stress chemicals that are not subject to rational control.
Can't stop it
Consider a high-performance dragster. It can accelerate from 0 to 60 in .8 seconds with an 11,000 horsepower engine. It can’t be stopped with just brakes alone and utilizes a parachute to slow it down.
Trying to control your anxiety could be likened to stopping this massive machine with bicycle handbrakes. It can’t happen, but we keep trying. We end up expending a tremendous amount of life energy with our ongoing attempts.
What consciousness does give us is control of the steering wheel. We can make choices about how to use this power. Other animals don’t have this choice. A tiger doesn’t have remorse about killing a deer for lunch. It also doesn’t plan on ways to engage in good or evil acts but is only reacting to the body’s signals to survive.
If this anxiety is the sensation generated by elevated levels of stress chemicals, such as histamines, cortisol, and adrenaline and not responsive to rational control, how do you decrease it? You lower your levels of these hormones. There are many ways to accomplish this, but talk therapy alone is not one of them, because it is such a mismatch. It has a major role that will be discussed in a future article.
Create some space
The first step is to separate yourself (your identity) from the unconscious reaction. It will always be present and is intended to be so unpleasant that you feel compelled to take action. It is also the reason to consider this situation so simplistically.
Anxiety is something you have, but not who you are. You can’t solve it, but you don’t have to. Consequently, there is a tremendous amount of energy freed up that allows you to engage with your conscious brain, and you can and will thrive.
One method is to create some distance is to visualize a large thermometer on a wall that represents the levels of your stress hormone levels. Instead of thinking of it as anxiety, use the phrase, “elevated stress chemicals.” You have an ongoing choice every second to use these stress hormones to your advantage—or be trapped by them.
Separating your identity from your survival reaction allows your humanity to evolve. Decreasing these chemicals is a learned skill that is not difficult. Understanding the basic nature of anxiety begins the largely self-directed process.
Eisenberger N. “The neural bases of social pain: Evidence for shared representations with physical pain.” Psychosom Med (2012); 74: 126-135.