Your brain frequently looks for the easy way out when it’s anxious.
Lots of things can cause anxiety— and they’re very often based in the concept of uncertainty.
Your brain gets anxious when it’s uncertain what’s happening next.
Your brain gets anxious when it’s uncertain what things mean.
Your brain gets anxious when it’s uncertain what someone else is thinking.
Your brain gets anxious when it’s uncertain what the right decision is.
When things are uncertain and your brain gets anxious, your brain often tries to solve the problem of anxiety by simply opting out— by going down the “flight” path of the “fight or flight” response tree.
These are the times when you find your brain suddenly making excuses for why it’s okay, or even imperative, to remove yourself from a situation.
For example, if you find yourself talking with someone to whom you’re attracted, and your brain suddenly realizes there’s a great amount of uncertainty involved here— uncertainty about what this person wants to hear from you, uncertainty about whether this person is as attracted to you as you are to them, uncertainty about whether they’re out of your league and about to break your heart— you might find your brain suddenly making excuses for why you need to end that conversation, right now.
Or, say you even NOTICE you’re attracted to someone, but your brain realizes IN ADVANCE all the uncertainty that MIGHT exist if you were to go up and talk to them— you might find your brain suddenly listening all the reasons why you shouldn’t even risk going up and talking to them.
The anxious brain is very, very good at avoidance and attempted escape.
Even when physical escape is impossible, the anxious brain tends to invent its own escape routes through the psychological defense of dissociation.
The thing is: uncertainty is not as threatening as your anxious brain thinks it is.
Yes, it’s true, that there are things out there that can hurt and traumatize us. I won’t even try to make the argument that it’s unlikely that those things will happen to us— I’ve met and worked with too many survivors of trauma to be naive about the supposed “improbability” of bad things happening.
But it’s also true that we have absolutely no control over many of those things out there that can hurt us.
No matter how anxious we get, no matter how frantically we attempt to avoid them— bad things can still happen to us.
Even if we somehow perfectly predicted all of the bad things we could possibly imagine happening to us, based on the bad things that HAVE happened to us (or that social media incessantly warns us MIGHT happen to us)…there are bad things that might happen to us that we would have absolutely no idea exist, let alone how to prepare for.
Anxious avoidance, in other words, is a terrible, terrible Plan A when it comes to keeping ourselves safe.
Anxious avoidance, in fact, usually results in more anxiety, more avoidance, and, ultimately, the depression and exhaustion that inevitably comes with isolation and frantic attempts to flee.
When we find ourselves driven, day after day after day, by our anxious brains’ attempts to avoid uncertainty, it’s important to be realistic about what we have to do.
It doesn’t help to yell at our brains to be more realistic.
It doesn’t help to be mad at ourselves for being so anxious.
It doesn’t help to get frustrated with our brains for their attempts to keep us safe through avoidance.
What does help is to be patient, compassionate, and understanding with our anxious brains…while at the same time gently reminding them that avoidance doesn’t actually DECREASE the level of uncertainty that exists in the world.
In fact, avoidance makes us LESS able to live in and cope with an uncertain world.
Think of your anxious brain like a scared child. You wouldn’t angrily scream at a scared child, “DON’T BE SCARED, DAMMIT!”
No, you wouldn’t. Because if you did, that scared child would quickly learn to avoid YOU as well.
Are you doing this to your anxious brain?
If so, cut it out. Your brain is avoiding enough stuff.
Instead, work on developing a sense of CERTAINTY within yourself— certainty that, no matter what happens OUTSIDE of you, your INTERNAL response to anxiety will be compassionate, grown up, and reality-based.
Certainty that the world might be uncertain…but that you have skills that you can, and will, use in the place of avoidance.
Use your damn skills.
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One thought on “Making friends with your anxious brain.”
Now this is a topic that interests me. A great read Doc and great skills.