Anxious Without a Threat
Chapter 1: Anxious Without a Threat
Anxiety is an expression of our survival instinct.
History of Anxiety
If you’re reading this book, I know you have anxiety. But how? Is it because you picked up this particular book? Actually, no. It’s because to be alive is to be anxious; there is no other way. We all have anxiety—and for a very good reason. In fact, if we weren’t anxious by nature, we wouldn’t be here right now. In every living thing, anxiety is part of the survival instinct, the built-in response to perceived threats. This is what makes us drive carefully in a rainstorm and avoid walking too close to the edge of a cliff. It’s our inner alarm system. It helps keep us alive. All living things have it. Even animals, running for their lives from the predators chasing them down, display anxiety. That’s what gets them moving. When seen in this way, anxiety isn’t pathological or dysfunctional; it’s a natural and appropriate response to a perceived threat.
You might be wondering, Why do we still have this instinct? What purpose does it serve in 2020, when the fear of being some predator’s dinner is no longer part of our everyday lives? Haven’t we evolved enough to know not to drive too fast in bad weather or hang out in burning buildings? Apparently not. We may have evolved, but our survival instinct is still very much the same as it’s always been; if anything, it’s become even more alert, detecting things other than just immediate threats to our survival. Does knowing this fact make it easier to deal with anxiety? Does it make the anxiety any more tolerable? As a matter of fact, yes, it does. Having a clearer and more logical understanding, all the while knowing why something is happening in your life, provides a path to freedom. The more you understand something and see it for what it is, the less control it will have over you and your life.
A common belief about anxiety is that it’s an emotional disorder existing inside of a person, consisting of that person’s overthinking, excessive worrying, and fearfulness about the future. Anxiety is listed as a mental disorder, characterized by significant feelings of anxiety and fear. Most of the time, the professionals diagnosing this disorder and the patients suffering from it, don’t even think or talk about the origins of anxiety. They don’t dig deeper into what’s going on; their sole focus is on getting rid of it. And thinking of anxiety as a mental health concern, as something that’s inherently wrong with you, isn’t particularly helpful when it comes to properly learning how to manage and live with it. The more we judge ourselves or feel bad about our experiences, instead of seeing them in context, the more difficult it is for us to deal with issues when they arise.
It’s a fact that anxiety has important adaptive functions for us. However, like most things in life, too much or too little of it reduces our ability to function, and hinders how well we adapt to new situations. Although anxiety plays an important role in our survival, there’s more to learn and know about it, especially when it starts to create problems in our lives and relationships.
For the sole purpose of survival, people throughout history have dealt with their anxiety by coming together. In the Stone Age, cavemen hunted as a team, which helped them become fierce hunters with sophisticated tools. They lived in close-knit family groups, allowing them to evolve. They took turns making sure the fire kept burning; and, over time, their ability to kill larger animals as a team allowed them to eat the meat quickly, then go out and get some more food before it went bad. Survival anxiety and close-knit communal living came into play at the same time in our evolution. As Jeffrey Miller explains in his book, The Anxious Organization, “Survival has always been an anxious business, and forming organizations is one thing humans do and always have done.”
In modern times, most of us aren’t worried about where our next meal will come from or whether we’ll be eaten—that is, unless you frequently hike in rural areas or you’ve watched Hannibal Lecter one too many times. These days, we’re less concerned with merely surviving and more focused on the quality and meaning of our lives. All of us are part of a larger living system; our families, workplaces, communities, and even our solar system are living systems. We seek out a sense of community, rely on our family and friends, and gravitate towards intimacy and connection. This begs the questions: Are we sticking together merely for survival, or has it become more than that, as we’ve evolved over time? How has our sense of community and togetherness become a resource to help us manage and ease our anxiety throughout history? And, how has it played a part in making us more anxious than ever before now?
We need human connection and the bonds of relationship; however, we also need our individuality. Many of us like to be affiliated with some type of community, whether it’s our religion, country of origin, or ethnic group, however, thinking of ourselves as merely part of a herd doesn’t sit well with us either. We want to be part of something bigger than ourselves, while also leaving our own unique mark on the world. We want to live with purpose and meaning. Since we no longer need to constantly worry about our survival, we’re able to be more aware of our higher-level human needs. What this means is that these days, a threat to our purpose, value, or sense of meaning can bring about just as much anxiety as a threat to our survival.
I just gave you a whole lot to think about. I bet you never looked at anxiety that way before. Until now, you maybe just saw it as that thing stopping you from doing what you really want to do in your life; that annoying fly you have to constantly swat away. And maybe it’s still that for you. Maybe thinking about the origins of anxiety just makes you more anxious. That’s okay with me. I’m not concerned about you being less anxious in the short term, as harsh as that might sound. I’m more focused on offering you a different perspective of anxiety, that will let you manage it in new ways and come up with real and effective solutions, rather than simply trying to avoid or get rid of it. Trust me, I’m speaking from experience. Shifting my perspective about anxiety changed everything for me. I tried everything under the sun to avoid being anxious. I worked out like crazy, avoided people and situations that made me nervous, and people-pleased to exhaustion. But none of it worked. I’m assuming that, since you’re reading this book, you know what I’m talking about.
We all have different reasons for experiencing anxiety; but at the core, the process of anxiety is the same—and it’s all too predictable. When we were constantly concerned with our actual survival, anxiety moved us to form communities, helping us cope more effectively with whatever was threatening us; however, in modern times, the people we’ve joined with can pose different types of threats. Ironically, although we tend to feel threatened when our community is in danger, we’re also susceptible to being threatened by our community.
We can see this process play out in nature. Animals travel and live in groups to survive; they’re so close, in fact, that the group operates as one living individual. When a member of the herd, mass, flock or pack is in danger, the entire group becomes anxious. For example, schools protect fish from their predators. It's just like the lecture I give my daughter before she leaves for a field-trip: always stay in your group, because there’s safety in numbers. Predators find it far easier to chase and eat a fish that’s swimming alone than to snatch one swimming in a huge group. The reverse is also true. Fish can better defend their territory in a group, since predators are less likely to attack a school of dozens or hundreds of them.
Animal groups like fish schools, bird flocks, and insect swarms seem to move so synchronously that researchers have long believed them to be leaderless units. For example, video observations of fish schools have shown that when one fish perceives a threat, the entire school instantly picks up on it and swims away from the threat in a certain pattern. Scientists have tried to figure out what transmissions the fish send to alert everyone in the presence of a threat. It’s as if they share a special connection that allows them to transmit anxiety throughout the school, letting everyone know to swim away.
We’re just like schools of fish. In the context of our families, workplaces, and neighborhoods, anxiety is passed on from one person to the next. For example, if someone in a family is anxious, everyone else in the family gets anxious. How we differ from schools of fish is that we’re often unclear where the source of our threats come from, which leaves us in a constant state of anxiety that can sometimes be crippling. As I said before, the less aware we are about our anxiety, the less we understand what’s happening to us, the more negatively affected we are by it. The members of our families and communities are all, at a subconscious level, affected by anxiety. Therefore, when anxious, our instincts are on high alert, ready to respond to a threat at any moment. Anxiety, especially chronic anxiety, is such an integral part of our nature that we only perceive it when it starts creating real problems in our lives.
Unlike fish, when we’re anxious, we’re liable to make some very erratic and unhealthy choices. A school of fish beautifully synchronizes in swift movement away from a threat, but we aren’t so graceful. We tend to make things worse with our anxiously driven natural reactions. Our reactions to anxiety don’t usually solve anything. They just cause us to displace our anxiety, instead of addressing the real problem that started it in the first place. Since anxiety is uncomfortable for us, our initial reaction is to get rid of it immediately. However, the things we do in an effort to rid ourselves of anxiety usually just cause us to pass that anxiety onto someone else—most of the time, without realizing it.
For example, let’s say you have a bad day at work because your boss yells at you for not being clear in your presentation. You’re upset, because you know you didn’t prepare enough for your presentation. You come home and walk right past your spouse without any acknowledgment. He sees that you’re upset about something, but doesn't know the details. Later, he screams at your son for not brushing his teeth before bed. Your child then begins to scream and cry uncontrollably, which is normal for him to do when he gets yelled at. Now you can feel yourself getting more upset and anxious. Without knowing it, your anxiety has spread from you, to your spouse, to your son, and back to you again. Everyone in the family is now feeling anxious, and no one is exactly sure why. It’s like a subconscious game of hot potato.
Here’s another example for you. Let’s say your sister, whom we’ll call Becky, is really frustrated with your mom. They’re engaged in their usual bickering, because your mom always calls her to complain about something. Becky calls you to tell you all about her frustrations with your mom, projecting all of her anger onto you, and pressuring you to agree with her and take her side. Your anxiety goes up, so you call your dad to tell him what happened and complain about how Becky always tries to get you involved in her drama with mom. Your dad talks you down from the ledge and you feel better. He now has a migraine and takes two Advil with a glass of wine, then yells at your mom about her constant need to complain. Your mom’s anxiety went to Becky, then to you, then to your dad, and all the way back to her again.
When you look at anxiety this way, you can understand that it doesn’t just go away, even if you feel relieved for a moment. Instead, it circulates within the relationship system like a football being passed from one person to the next. Everyone’s so busy throwing around the anxiety football that the real threat remains ignored, avoided, and overlooked completely. In the first example I gave you, if your work stress and inability to prepare well for presentations isn’t addressed, you’ll just keep coming home upset, spreading anxiety in your family like an electric current. In the second example, if Becky doesn’t work on her relationship with your mom and her inability to set boundaries, she’ll keep calling you and passing along the anxiety football. If Becky doesn’t make changes, it’s up to you to manage your anxiety whenever she tries to bring you in on her problems with your mom. By setting clear boundaries with her, you’ll eventually stop picking up the football.
In this book, I’ll be presenting a different perspective of anxiety that will help you function more effectively when you’re anxious, instead of just passing your anxiety on to the next person. You’ll learn to think differently about your anxiety—in a clearer, more rational way—so that instead of passing it around, you’ll start tackling the real issues at their core. You’ll become knowledgeable about where your chronic anxiety is coming from, how you can better manage it without feeling the need to pass it to someone else, and how you can stop absorbing other people’s anxiety as your own. You will understand the nature of anxiety, not only as a part of our physiological survival mechanism, but as an intrinsic part of our relational network.
Bowen Family Systems Theory
The ideas I’m sharing about anxiety stem from my work as a psychotherapist and my understanding of Bowen Family Systems Theory. This theory, which was developed by psychiatrist and professor Dr. Murray Bowen, asserts that to live better lives, our journeys should be guided by a reasonable balance between thoughts and feelings. As most of us know, feelings are fleeting, so objective facts tend to be a far superior basis for good decision-making.
Bowen saw the family as an emotional unit, indicating that family members are extremely emotionally connected to each other. If we’re honest with ourselves, we can see how profoundly our families influence our emotions and actions. A change in one person sparks a change in how other members of the family system act and feel. Just like the school of fish, we’re all subconsciously connected in deep and meaningful ways.
When I first learned about this way of thinking, it made a lot of sense to me, even though I didn’t fully understand it. Over many years of training, I learned to see myself, others, and how we all operate in a new light. Rather than seeing people as merely individuals, I started to see how we’re all interrelated—how we’re connected and separate at the same time. Looking at anxiety from this perspective means that rather than identifying the problem within one person, or trying to find a single source for the anxiety that’s present, we take a look at the connections between members of the emotional unit and see how anxiety is operating there. In this view, nobody’s to blame, since everyone affects everyone else. We are all individual pieces of an operating system; each of us plays an important role in our own lives and the lives of others. Being aware of this, the goal is to manage ourselves more effectively in the face of conflict and see how we’re contributing to the situation.
Even though I’ve watered this theory down significantly, you might be wondering why you need to know any of this in the first place. It’s because in order to change your behaviors, you first must understand why you’re doing what you’re doing. You have to trust in the theory and the process. The best way to see if the theory is true is to apply it to your relationship network. For this reason, I’ll be offering many activities that give you a chance to apply these ideas in your own life.
It isn’t easy to turn your life around and make real and meaningful changes. It helps to develop an unwavering belief in the principles I’ll be sharing with you, in order to finally take charge of your life and your anxiety. But you don’t even have to take my word for it. This theory is backed by a growing body of empirical research, which I’ll be sharing here too. In fact, one concept that I’ll discuss in detail in this book, differentiation of self, has been proven by research to increase our sense of wellbeing, help us handle stress better, and make us less anxious.
The concept of ‘differentiation of self’ offers a lot of information about how we can cope more effectively with anxiety. Being well differentiated means having the ability to think as an individual, while still remaining connected to others. How many times have you been confident about who you are and what you want, only to later find yourself tangled in a relationship with your parent, spouse, or sibling, that leads you to sway your opinion? How many times have you done the opposite of what others expect from you, just to prove that you can do what you want? How many times have you gone with the flow, just to avoid ruffling any feathers? To be well differentiated is to be emotionally mature and connected to yourself, regardless of who you’re in contact with; it means maintaining your individuality while understanding the emotional effect and pull your family has on you.
This book won’t teach you about mental illness and how to treat your internal problem. Instead, it will teach you about why you’re anxious and how you can be a more solid, more differentiated self in the midst of your most important relationships. And with that knowledge, you’ll be able to effectively manage your anxiety for life. Bowen’s theory doesn’t focus on mental illness, but rather on the challenges of being human in relationships.
Dr. Bowen also observed patterns in the ways human families managed anxiety, which were remarkably similar to the way animals instinctively handle threats towards their groups. He noticed that our relationship problems are often exaggerated when we’re anxious, by the way we react to threats within our family or group. For example, let’s say a family member brings up a different opinion during a heated political debate. You proclaim that this person has to take the same position as you, otherwise you’ll never see eye to eye and your bond will be broken forever. Or let’s say your daughter falls and scrapes her knee, and you run frantically to the rescue. From then on, she doesn’t react calmly and instead freaks out whenever she falls. Our anxiety driven reactions to certain situations can be so exaggerated that they often lead to more stress and anxiety. I’ll share some more about this, and what you can do about it, in the next chapter.
Acute Versus Chronic Anxiety
It’s important to understand that there are two types of anxiety: acute and chronic. That uneasy feeling you get when you drive in bad weather or prepare to give a big presentation is what’s known as acute anxiety. It’s the good kind of anxiety I mentioned earlier. The kind we need for our survival. The natural alarm system in our bodies that lets us know we might be in danger. When the bad weather stops and the presentation is over, the acute anxiety subsides. While acute anxiety arises in response to specific causes, chronic anxiety is primarily created within relationships. According to Michael Kerr and Murray Bowen, “Acute anxiety is fed by fear of what is; chronic anxiety is fed by fear of what might be.” Worrying is almost always about what might be, and depending on how deeply you think into the future, this type of anxiety can feel overwhelming.
Chronic anxiety is what was preprogrammed into us, what we’ve inherited from our families of origin. We bring that anxiety around with us, and it can make us pretty reactive, leading to bad decisions and unhealthy patterns. With acute anxiety, a stressor—like driving in bad weather, for example—causes our brains to release adrenaline, also known as epinephrine. This hormone increases our heart rate, raises our blood pressure, and causes us to sweat. There are three biological responses that can follow the adrenaline secretion: 1) Fight, 2) Flee, or 3) Freeze. These are our evolutionary go-to moves when a situation that arises makes us anxious. It’s the adrenaline that’s being released, which allows us, like all other animals, to react when in danger.
For the most part, I’ll be addressing only chronic anxiety in this book. This is the anxiety that most of us go see therapists for or take medication to manage. It’s the anxiety that we walk around with daily, even when there’s no imminent danger in sight. This anxiety comes from our families of origin, and from the anxiety circulating in our families, workplaces, and communities. It causes our brains to secrete corticosteroid hormones, such as cortisol. Researchers are just scratching the surface in their discovery of the many hormones that get released in chronically anxious organisms; however, they’ve already identified many effects that those hormones have on our bodies. Corticosteroids are anti-allergic and anti-inflammatory; their biological purpose is to heal the body from the cellular damage that happens as a result of chronic anxiety. However, there are other, much less pleasant effects of these hormones being secreted, such as ulcers, infection, high blood pressure, weight retention and possibly even aging in the brain, which can lead to dementia and other health issues that I’ll discuss later in the book. For this reason, doctors who are up to date on the latest research will ask their patients about their personal lives and stress levels when they come in with certain health issues.
I know hearing all of this information doesn’t make managing your anxiety any easier. I’m not sharing it to make you more anxious. I’m sharing it so you can see that when we ignore or numb our everyday anxiety, our health is impacted in unimaginable ways. It’s critically important that we face our chronic anxiety head-on and make the necessary changes in our lives. However, making real changes isn’t easy. We must have a bigger goal and purpose in mind and be knowledgeable about the consequences of our patterned reactions to the problems we face. This helps us become more aware of what we’re giving our time and energy to. For me, incorporating this awareness has led me to make changes that help me live a healthier life, filled with effective strategies for dealing with and managing chronic anxiety.
I understand, and can sympathize, if you feel overwhelmed or at a loss. For most of my life, I tried to deny and cut off from anxiety, but it didn’t work. Instead, chronic anxiety wreaked havoc on my body. In my early 20s, I was suffering from panic attacks, muscle spasms, stiff neck and shoulders, and daily migraines. I had to get pretty uncomfortable to embark on making changes in my life. Funny enough, I actually got really upset with my primary doctor when he insinuated that my health issues had to do with stress. “How dare he blame me for my health issues and suggest I play some part in immobilizing my neck?!” I thought. I was mortified and, in the end, angry with myself. However, what I didn’t realize was that it actually wasn’t my fault. I was part of a larger system, and my anxiety was manifesting in ways that I had no control over at the time.
Just like it wasn’t my fault, it isn’t yours. As I’ve explained here, there’s an entire evolutionary, biological, and systemic explanation for all of this. This might have you throwing your hands up saying, “Well, I’m screwed. There isn’t anything I can do about this.” But, in fact, there’s a great deal you can do about it. It starts with you thinking about yourself and your interactions with others in a new way. This book will give you a blueprint for improving your relationships, differentiating yourself, and managing your anxiety, so that you can reach your goals in life. You hold the key to what you want to create for your life. Regardless of the history that stands behind you, and the hormones that live within you, you can still live a good life.
Acute anxiety is often appropriate and protective when it is in response to a true threat. When it comes to chronic anxiety, causes are never as simple as they may seem and often related to imagined threats or beliefs. As this chapter emphasized, the experience of distress can be pretty complicated. When viewing anxiety through the lens of Bowen Family Systems Theory, a systemic way of looking at a complex problem, it becomes clear that anxiety isn’t just some defect playing out within one person. From this perspective, it’s helpful to look not only at the individual, but at the whole family system, when attempting to understand chronic anxiety. When you can see each relationship system that you operate in as a whole, and understand the role you play in it, you tap into a valuable resource that can help you manage your anxiety over time.
Activity: Observer of Your Own Life
We’re all researchers in our own right, always observing our environments and the people around us, and making judgements and assumptions about why things are the way they are. Why did Jennifer from the office say what she said to me? Why did that jerk cut me off in traffic? Why does my dad have anger issues, and why can’t my sister keep friends? Like good researchers, we’re constantly coming up with theories to explain why certain situations occurred. However, there’s a big difference between making observations about people and situations, and making assumptions about them. Observations come from a more curious and objective place, while judgments and assumptions come from our subjective experiences and prejudices.
For this activity, I’d like you to practice being an observer of your own life, much like a researcher or journalist. Whether you’re at a family dinner, at a work meeting, or about to bring up something important and anxiety-provoking to your spouse, practice being an observer, without making assumptions. Watch how anxiety gets transferred from one person to the next; take note of how it spreads like wildfire; pay attention to what it brings up for you. A tightness in the chest? Shoulder pain? Anger? Frustration? An urge to smooth things over? Whatever it is, just observe it. Watch the natural process at work.
Afterwards, ask yourself:
1. What did I notice when I was simply observing my own life?
2. How did the anxiety circulate?
3. What is my automatic reaction to others being anxious?