Does Everyone Have Anxiety?
Last week we looked at the fact that we have a part of our brain that's like an animal - operating on instinct to keep us safe. This is what in our modern world we call ‘anxiety’. A lot of us have heard about anxiety as a serious debilitating mental health issue, but what is less commonly known is that we ALL have anxiety. And it impacts us in lots of ways that we don’t even realise.
We often like to call it “busy-ness” or “stress”. In our culture, that’s often glorified…how often do you ask someone how they’re doing and they respond with something like “I’m so busy, I’ve got so much on…but I’m doing great!” And if we don’t have all that much “on”, we feel bad about ourselves and think we don’t measure up. We all seem to be caught in the belief system that the more we accomplish in a day, the more valuable, loveable, and desirable we are.
This is an anxious thought pattern! I like to call it “hidden anxiety” because in our culture we reward people for being busy and stressed and getting everything accomplished, and so we don’t see it as a constricting mental construct.
The reality is that this whole pattern of behaviour is simply a mechanism of our survival instinct. Our bodies are carrying out a pattern that our brains are convinced will keep us safe - but this is happening without us even realising it! And it’s all linked to the core beliefs that our mind created when we were younger.
I was talking to a friend of mine the other day - a classic busy, accomplished, doing-a-million-things-a-day kind of girl. Just the kind we would look at and think “She’s so amazing! She’s doing so much!” In listening to her talk about her childhood, I gained some insight into how this anxiety pattern lodged itself into her young mind.
Firstly, she was raised by a young single mother who started university when my friend was born, and then proceeded to work three jobs, educate herself, and raise her daughter all at the same time. So this busy-ness was modelled to my friend from a very early age as a normative way of functioning, since that is what her mother had to do to manage her situation. And remember - when we’re little we have no perspective, so whatever we experience appears to us as a true fact about the whole world, and we can’t put things into perspective and contextualise what our parents are doing based on the uniqueness of their circumstances.
Secondly, at the age of 13 my friend moved from a very relaxed elementary school in small country town to a posh private girls’ school in in a big city. It was terrifying for her. Everything was different. There was pressure to perform, she didn’t know anyone, and she was way out of her comfort zone. She really struggled at first. She confessed to me that she basically cried every day for a year. The core belief that was triggered for her was “I don’t belong…I’m not good enough for this place.”
Then, all of a sudden she worked out that if she got involved in school sports, drama, music, and all the extra curricular activities available at this well-endowed school, she was able to make friends and be included into this fancy new world. And so her brain filed this very difficult experience away with the conclusion - if you don’t get involved in everything, you will be depressed and excluded. Because that was her reality back then.
This was a brilliant solution for her mind to come up with in that situation. But the problem is that her mind has now latched onto this belief and drives her to function like a bat out of hell under the false impression that if she slows down, those sad and isolating feelings will come rushing back in. Her brain thinks she is still a hapless kid from the country trying to fit into a ritzy new world where she doesn’t belong!
These are the kind of patterns that are happening all the time in all of us. Somewhere along the way, we have all experienced something new and hard and overwhelming that our mind coped with in whatever genius way it could come up with at the time, which then gets locked into our functioning forevermore as an anxious response (until we decide to get in there and do something about it!)
Of course you could argue “Who cares if we’re all anxious, we’re getting stuff done so why does it matter?”
Well, here’s why…when our brains are working on autopilot like this, we aren’t actually taking in new experiences. When or mind is fixated on an old fear, we are seeing our whole lives through the lens of that past experience, and so spontaneity and freshness vanish from our lives slowly but surely. And we end up having different versions of the SAME experiences over and over. And we wonder why we all get so bored of our lives!?
In addition to this slow and steady decline into mediocrity….when we live a life based in a pattern of fear, eventually it blows up in our face. Because our survival mind is not looking at the long term! It is only taking into account what will keep me safe in THIS second, based on what I think I know about the world from my experiences last week/year/decade (see the problem in logic here!?)
When these reactions compound, it ends up causing us real harm. We end up crashing, getting overwhelmingly upset, having panic attacks, doing things we later regret, getting really sick, or experiencing a whole host of other ways that our system “breaks down” from all of that fear-based adrenaline.
This can happen to all of us. In different ways and at different times, we all get stuck in these overwhelming thought patterns, even if we’re not someone who thinks of ourselves as typically ‘anxious’ or ‘depressed’…and if we don’t stop to recognise this pattern in ourselves, we simply end up blaming our situation…“that boyfriend was dragging me down…I need a new friend group…That outfit makes me feel depressed” etc. And we try to fix the problem by fixing the world around us, not realising that as long as we keep functioning with this outdated pattern of anxiety in our brains, we will simply re-create the same experience for ourselves in a different format again and again and again.
When we can see that our breakdowns and disasters start with our own mental patterns, then we can find new ways of looking at ourselves and our lives.
Once we are aware of our own anxiety, it loses its hold on us, and then we get to decide if this is a filter we are going to accept at face value or if we are going to break free and see our reality in a whole new light.
Want more? Check out a full video story on this topic featuring a vulnerable account by the fabulous Liv Phyland of what led to her first panic attack here: