Here are examples of some of the apprehensive behaviours that keep us trapped in anxiety…
APPREHENSIVELY DISTRACTING FROM ANXIETY: Trying to apprehensively distract ourselves from anxiety and its symptoms and sensations is often one of the first strategies we desperately deploy to try and get rid of anxiety. However, trying to apprehensively distract from anxiety ultimately only reinforces it. This is because whenever we behave significantly apprehensively, our primitive ‘freeze, fight or flee’ stress response concludes we are facing a physical threat, and so then it works to physical mobilise and emotionally motivate us to escape that physical threat it erroneously thinks we are facing, giving us all those frightening symptoms and sensations we call anxiety. And so, although apprehensive distraction may bring some temporary relief from anxiety, we remain on high alert behind the scenes, reinforcing the anxiety and also building fear associations (e.g. if you continuously try and apprehensively distract from anxiety when you go outside or go on transport you will build a fear association with going outside or going on transport). Instead, we must learn how to accept and stay calm in the face of anxiety, thereby allowing it to pass in its own time and for our nervous system to slowly recover.
FEARING THE SYMPTOMS AND SENSATIONS OF YOUR ANXIETY: No matter how bewildering and frightening the symptoms and sensations of anxiety may initially seem, they are simply the symptoms and sensations of our body’s primitive ‘freeze, fight or flee’ survival stress response. If we allow ourselves to get frightened by them then we perpetuate and exacerbate the problem because anxiety is caused by apprehensive behaviour (thinking and acting). Instead, we need to learn to accept these symptoms and sensations and remain calm as we experience them, thereby allowing them to pass in their own time and for our nervous system to slowly recover.
APPREHENSIVELY SEEKING REASSURANCE ABOUT YOUR ANXIETY: Apprehensively seeking reassurance is another strategy we might deploy to try and solve our distressing anxiety. We may apprehensively seek reassurance through our own inner voices, Google, social media, books, and from others. At first, reassurance seems to help, and our anxiety goes down a bit and we feel a sense of relief. But then the doubts come back in the form of ‘yes…but what if…’ and then we have to find some new reassurance for that new ‘what if’ question and so on which can result in our anxiety spiralling out of control. Instead, we have to learn to see anxiety for what it really is; simply our body’s primitive survival stress response designed to help us ‘freeze, fight or flee’ in the face of danger, which we will trigger less and less as we start to systematically drop all the apprehensive behaviour feeding it.
ENGAGING IN SAFETY OR AVOIDANCE BEHAVIOURS: To get some level of temporary relief from the frightening experience of anxiety and the situations, people, places or things we have come to associate this anxiety with, we may engage in safety and avoidance behaviours. For example, we might make sure we are with someone else in a public place (safety behaviour) or avoid public places completely (avoidance behaviour). Or we might make sure we are always driving when in a car (safety behaviour), or we might avoid being in a car completely (avoidance behaviour).
However, safety and avoidance are ultimately apprehensive behaviours that reinforce anxiety and train our ‘freeze, fight or flee’ primitive stress response to associate those situations, people, places or things we are putting safety behaviours around or avoiding with a physical threat. And so, when we think about or engage with these places and situations our primitive stress response is immediately triggered, resulting in anxiety and its emotional and physical symptoms/sensations we fear, keeping us trapped in a vicious cycle of anxiety. Ultimately, we need to systematically drop all safety and avoidance behaviours through the process of exposure and see that anxiety isn’t dangerous and passes when we stop fearing it.
TREATING UNWANTED INTRUSIVE THOUGHTS LIKE THEY MEAN SOMETHING/ARE IMPORTANT: Everyone gets unwanted intrusive thoughts from time to time (e.g. “What if I can cope!” or “What if the worst happens!!”). We are particularly vulnerable to them when our anxiety is heightened. However, thoughts are just thoughts and not reality and if we start having a conversation with these kinds of thoughts, we trigger more and more of them. All this apprehensive thinking then triggers our ‘freeze, fight or flee’ primitive stress response which gives us disturbing emotional feelings (e.g. feelings of dread and doom or a feeling like something bad is going to happen, etc.) to try and emotionally motivate us to escape the physical threat it erroneously thinks we are facing. These feelings can then make us feel like our thoughts are true or going to come true (though feeling fusion) and so we get sucked into the thoughts and anxiety more and more and lose rational perspective.
Instead, we need to recognise unwanted intrusive thoughts as just harmless thoughts and not engage with them, letting them drift out of our mind in their own time. We also need to practice not getting tricked by the disturbing emotional feelings from anxiety; they are just the result of our primitive stress response believing we are facing a physical threat and trying to emotionally motivate us to escape.
© Amanda Morgan