A Tiger in the Bush

It’s one of those days. Hectic. Nothing seems to fall into its right place. Everything seems tobe collapsing… down, in on itself. Imploding. Then exploding. Like a supernova- its gravity crushing itself in on itself until it ignites and blows outward, screaming into the black sea of space. It’s sheer mayhem. Have you felt it before? I bet you have. You might even get twinges of it throughout the day. That sour, acidic worry that creeps upon you when you least expect it.

When it’s explosive, it’s called panic. And when it’s not so explosive, but rather a slow leaching into your experience, much of the time, this is called anxiety. What are these intense feelings of fear all about?

Well, you should first regard them as not inherently “bad” per se. Anxiety is a highly useful tool for us human beings. In fact, our ancestors made way for us to exist by having very useful anxiety. Anxiety came in handy when a tiger was prowling in the bushes. Panic helped our ancestors to escape immediate, volatile and deadly threats to their existence.

I bet you wonder, why do I have it when there is no tiger? Let’s consider animals… they too have anxiety. When they come into a situation that poses a threat to their well-being or existence, they can get anxiety in similar situations and avoid them in order to survive a threat they have previously encountered.

What makes humans different? Due to the complexity of our minds, we have the capacity for “association.” This means that we can connect one experience we’ve had to pretty much anything that we can imagine. This makes us even more creative in our ability to survive all sorts of events. Unlike animals, we actually don’t have to experience the horridevent to learn to avoid it. We can simply imagine it and then already be prepared when something like it comes down our path.

So, where do things go haywire? We are so good at making these associations and connections between different threats that our minds sometimes make too many connections to things that may not truly be a threat. For example, spiders may cause you anxiety. This makes sense- some of them are poisonous and potentially harmful to you.Now take the idea of a spider: you can get just as wound up even in the absence of the spider. You can panic at the mere idea of “SPIDER”. This is not so useful to you, is it? With no spider in sight, this is not helpful. Now go a bit further… you may think of things,experiences, people or events that give you anxiety where there is really no “harm” in the sense that there is no apparent threat to your safety. Take me for example, I experience some intense feelings of anxiety when I think of the future. I experience anxiety, maybe even sometimes panic, when I think about where I am going to be in 10 years. What sort of threat does my future pose to me right now?

You may believe that it’s good to think about the future so that you make the right plans.You are right, but what about those intense feelings of anxiety, sometimes panic, that go along with thinking about the me of 10 years in the future? Is that really useful? It isn’t, but my mind has made “10 years into the future” into something like “the tiger in the bush”.Things have gone a bit haywire. That’s okay though. Remember, anxiety is useful. Neve rwish you’d be without it. It literally keeps you and me alive. However, because anxiety wants us to be so safe, it urges us to avoid just about anything- we might avoid relationships, avoid people, avoid experiences or avoid joy and accomplishments, just because they have been associated with fear.

Of course, there is risk in all of these things, isn’t there? Walking outside in the morning is a great risk, isn’t it? What about getting into a car? Sure. Life is full of risk. Being alive is literally a risk we take every moment we have in this world. But when we can learn to differentiate between “true” risk and “unhelpful” risk, we can start to move in a healthy direction. So, our first step is to know when a risk is “real” or “perceived”. This sounds easy,but sometimes it’s not. Take some time to make a list of all of the various fears and anxieties you have as you go about your day.

Make a complete list of your fears and stresses as they arise.Once you have your list, rate these fears on a scale of 1-10, 10 being an immediate threat to your safety and 1 being little to now threat to your well-being. For example- 10 is a tiger in the bush and 1 is seeing a stack of dirty dishes in the sink. Perhaps if you’re uneasy about this exercise, talk to a few friends and see what kind of ratings they might offer to see if they agree. Consultation is always helpful.

Now, start to look at those items on your list that you can clearly define as “perceived” risk,rather than “true” risk. Take each one and give it some attention.

As you meditate on each item:

• Notice what they do in your body.

• Your heart picks up it’s pace, from a leisurely walk to a dash. Your chest may get tight.Your teeth clench. The muscles in your face tighten. Your mind feels like it’s melting.

• Ground yourself (practice our grounding techniques). Feel your feet on the ground,notice your breath, let your muscles loosen, unclench your teeth, breath from your stomach.

• Keep your eyes open and look around you. What do you see in front of you? Colors?Objects?

• Reframe your anxiety. Use the following for your inner monologue “I am having an anxious thought about ____________ and it is very painful” (or something in your own words that works for you).

• Continue this practice on a daily basis, right when you feel that creeping sensation of anxiety (check in with yourself)

• Always consult a therapist with any trauma-related anxiety (painful memories that are coming up from the past)