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Anxiety is a Signal, Not a Siren

Updated: Jul 19, 2022

I think we all avoid a lot more than we like to admit. For example, I’m great at avoiding doing the dishes for just that little bit longer than I should, or maybe waiting too long to fold my laundry even after it’s been cleaned. I might catch myself avoiding to send that thank you letter I’ve been meaning to write or even avoid following up on that text that came through earlier that day. We all avoid, but for my clients avoidance is more than just a familiar pattern. It impacts functioning.

Avoidance, sometimes perceived by others as laziness, is more often than not a symptom of perniciously hidden anxiety. At this point, you’re probably quite familiar with hearing about the prevalence and significance of anxiety disorders, but the negative consequences of anxiety often overshadow our ability to understand anxiety and its function. In fact, neurologically, there is great functional utility in having anxiety.

Its primary function is to keep us safe from the unknowns of life. For example, imagine this:

You’re out camping by yourself in the middle of the woods. It’s late at night, visibility is low as it gets dark. Your only source of light comes from your fire. You hear a twig snap somewhere off in the distance.

What happens to your body? How do you react?

If you really visualized that scenario, you might even get a slight hypervigilant sensation just reading it. The sensation that most people would have in an event like that would be a state of hyper (non sexual) arousal and alertness. Ultimately, your sympathetic nervous system would kick on, you breathe faster, your blood rushes to your body’s vital organs, your face might get flush, you start to sweat as your body’s cooling system gets launched into action, and you’re vision narrows as you prepare to see what’s out in the distance. This is your fight, flight or freeze response in action.

For most of human history, this process is extraordinarily adaptive. It keeps humans safe. From an evolutionary standpoint, all that really matters is a human’s ability to survive and reproduce. Our sympathetic nervous system’s response to threat allows us to successfully achieve those evolutionary priorities. However, these days, our brains are operating with what I like to term as, “outdated software”. The world has never been safer, yet the world has also never been more complex. While we all live longer and are not nearly as susceptible to disease or famine as we were hundreds of years ago, we are also more connected, more stimulated, and as a result, can feel more directionless.

Dr. Tracy Dennis-Tiwary speaks to this in her work on anxiety. She notes that complexity creates more unknowns for us, and as a result of the unknowns, we are then conditioned to be negative in an effort to stay safe. Yet as Dennis-Tiwary points out, this kind of pervasive, “automatic appraisal of the future” was never intended to be chronic and lingering. Instead, our brains were adapted to experience what she terms as “acute and brief” anxiety.

So, what are we to do if we know that the world is a great big place of unknowns, those unknowns don’t seem to be going anywhere, and it seemingly is only getting more complex for us to navigate our day to day? The key: train yourself to see anxiety and anxious responses (see fight, flight, or freeze responses) to be SIGNALS of information, not SIRENS. The body is likely telling you a story, and for most of my patients, they are looking for the pain and distress that anxiety causes to go away. They run, they hide, they freeze in place (ie: procrastination). However, instead, the frame that I offer would be to see this response as information. See it as a signal of, “something I care about”. That frame is more empowering and better yet, it isn't disingenuous. It’s true. If you’re anxious, it probably means you do care. And in the instances that it isn’t true (ie: doing the dishes), you can choose to view that avoidance as something that doesn’t need behavioral attention but that you can let go…read that again…let go. Just because your body wants you to avoid whatever it is signaling, doesn’t mean you have to listen.

That said, sometimes the signal is worth listening to. For example, you shouldn’t cross the road blindfolded. But, for the most part, those who suffer with overwhelming anxiety and avoidance are interpreting the body’s signals as sirens, and are not yet able to witness the mind as a biological tool designed to keep us safe, even when our safety may not be legitimately at risk.

Onwards and upwards!

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