by Harriet Lerner, Ph.D.
How nice it would be to always see fear as a solicitous friend—a natural survival mechanism that warns us to keep the door shut when the wolf is waiting outside, or priming us to fight, flee, or freeze when the wolf has found his way in.
In the face of imminent danger, we need to react-not stop and ponder the pros and cons. So, Hurray for all the ways anxiety can keep us safe, attuned, intuitive, and alert as we watch out for ourselves and those we love.
But for the most part, our instinctual responses to anxiety no longer fit the stresses of modern times. More often than not, we’re not facing a wolf-like threat. Most stresses we face today require us to slow down, limber up our brain and do our best problem solving.
When we’re too anxious we won’t be able to gather new information, think clearly about the problem, explore our options, give calm and clear feedback to others, and find creative solutions that consider the needs of all. And fear can run amuck, flooding our system with adrenalin and hi-jacking our neo-cortex—the thinking part of the brain. We can’t see two sides of an issue, much less six or seven sides.
Most devastating to self-esteem is that the ability to see the many-sidedness of our own self is lost. We get locked into a narrow view of who we are, and lose sight of our own possibilities. Anxiety digs a big negative groove in our brain and makes it impossible to hang on to a positive thought for more than five seconds.
As I’m sure you know from personal experience, anxiety promotes catastrophic thinking. Doom-and-gloom fantasies may permeate your day, and reach a fever pitch when you’re lying in bed. Your anxious mind, saddled with far too much free time in the wee hours of the morning, will hook onto some dire, worst-case scenario-frequently on the subject of personal finances, health, your child’s future, or the state of the world.
These catastrophic imaginings are not necessarily irrational. Anything can happen. But these thoughts grip you in a way that accomplishes nothing except to make you feel miserable and powerless.
When you’re really anxious, your thinking center may shrink to the size of a pinto bean. It’s obviously hard to feel good about yourself when anxiety disrupts your memory and concentration, leaving you unable to read, write, study, analyze, or take in new information.
I am quite familiar with the experience of anxiety turning the brain to mush. I’ll bring someone along to any important medical appointment because I know that my mind is apt to race, go blank, flood or freeze. Also, my sense of direction, shaky in the best of circumstances, is especially vulnerable to the brain-numbing effects of anxiety.
Once, when my younger son, Ben, was attending middle school, I was called at work to come immediately and take him to the hospital. Steve was out of town. The school nurse told me that Ben was reporting the following symptoms: His right hand was numb and the numbness was spreading up his arm, his vision was impaired (“words were coming off the page”), he was having difficulty speaking and he had vomited. A brain tumor, I thought. My son has a brain tumor.
Then I flashed on Ben’s earlier stint in the intensive care unit of the local hospital, as a result of a skateboard accident that had caused a frontal lobe concussion. It’s worse than a tumor, I concluded. Maybe a blood clot related to the concussion had dislodged itself and Ben would die shortly. Or maybe he was having a stroke. Did the school nurse think Ben was having a stroke? Should I call 911? The nurse suggested I simply come to school and pick up my son.
I headed toward the school sick to my stomach, searching for any medical explanation less disastrous than the ones I had come up with, but nothing else seemed plausible. I got lost on the short drive to the school. The hospital, which I knew well, was only a couple of minutes away, but I doubted my ability to find my way there, locate the emergency entrance, park, and sign my name. So I grabbed the school social worker, and all but dragged her out to my car to guide me to the hospital, despite some person in authority shouting after me that this was not her job and that she needed to stay on the school premises.
Ben did not have a brain tumor, a migrating blood clot or stroke. On that terrifying day, he had his first migraine-from-hell. This possibility didn’t occur to me, since I knew almost nothing about migraine headaches, which, I have since learned, can mimic serious neurological symptoms. Ben’s migraines were from hell, but this diagnosis was a huge relief, as you might imagine.
In a crisis, most of us can readily identify anxiety as the culprit behind our poor mental functioning. In these situations, we can usually forgive ourselves for our temporary brain-lock and move on. But as I explain The Dance of Fear, anxiety also operates as a chronic, underground force that we may fail to identify as the culprit behind our poor functioning, our unhappy relationships, or our low self-regard.
Remember that anxiety affects the functioning of all of us, even if you don’t feel anxious. Anxiety sucks. But learning to identify its hidden mischief is a huge step to getting back in touch with your strength and competence.