Monthly Archives: April 2024

Is Your Anxiety Looking for a Place to Land?

When my son went away to college, he lived in a small campus residence with three other young men. One of them was struggling emotionally. One Saturday night, the roommate drunkenly stabbed his arm in the bathroom and left a bloody mess.

What I remember most clearly about this was a deep anxiety and troubling thoughts. Drunks do all kinds of irrational things! That kid is full of rage! He might stab my son! My son is in a dangerous situation! Something needs to be done about this!

I asked my son to go to the housing administrators at his college to report the incident and have this kid removed from their room. “I’m not going to do that mom,” he said. “He’s not going to hurt me. I don’t want to make trouble for him. He’s already a mess.”

So full of heart and forgiveness, my son. But my worry remained.

I called the school myself. They told me, rightfully, that they couldn’t discuss other students due to privacy concerns. I hoped they’d hear me anyway and remove him. They didn’t.

My anxious feelings continued until after the holiday break when the young man dropped out of school and a new roommate moved in. I finally could relax.

For a while. Before long, I was worrying about something else and I was upset all over again.

I began to see that I felt anxious pretty much most of the time. As soon as things settled down with my son’s roommate, I was anxious about something else. And when that passed, I was anxious about yet a new situation, about myself or someone or something I cared about.

I realized that this was the way my life had gone for a long time. The anxiety was in me and had been all along. Only the situation provoking me, changed.

As I began working as a coach, I noticed the same thing in others. Many clients moved from one anxious situation to the next. Their stressful feelings remained more or less constant, and the resolution of one anxious situation gave rise to another, often without real evidence of actual trouble.

Why is this? Why do we do this?

Our wonderful brains love stories. They help us make sense of the world and our experience in it. So, the brain takes snippets of memories and information from all over the brain; that’s how we store memories–as fragments in various locations. Then it fills in the blank spaces to create a complete narrative, much like we can see an image of a circle when looking at a series of slotted lines.

This is how we make assumptions without real evidence. This is how we create stories that are often wildly untrue. This is how our anxiety–a feeling stored in our body–makes sense of itself.

And this is how I came to conclude that my son was in grave danger based on no evidence.

For those of us who grew up in less-than-ideal circumstances, it’s easy to go there. It doesn’t take much for stress to overtake us and to create stories to explain our stressful feelings. The anxious feelings live in us, and they amplify easily.

It’s a system meant to protect us. Stress is actually deeply protective. However, it compromises our ability to think clearly.

The inability to think clearly and logically is a natural consequence of stress and fear, which impels us to protect ourselves from danger. The ability to do long division is of no use when we are being chased by a bear. So the brain literally diverts energy from our logical minds to our physical bodies. We need resources to run or defend ourselves–this is known as fight or flight–and how we protect ourselves from physical danger. Like bears.

But few of us encounter real bears.

Our powerful imaginations–for example, my son is in grave danger–can provoke the same stress response and the same shut-down of logic and clarity that actual danger does.

I have a retired client who thought that she would be stress-free once she left her job. Her never-ending to do list overwhelmed her. But her body still carries the anxious feelings, and she’s now stressed about the volunteer activities she’s involved in. Her totally voluntary to do list seems as overwhelming as it was when she worked.

The lesson here? The external circumstances of her life weren’t the cause. They usually aren’t. Her body has carried anxiety for years. It didn’t stop when she retired. She found new explanations for the feelings inside her, feelings she’s carried all along.

The solution? It begins, like all transformation, with awareness.

We can begin by acknowledging our feelings, feeling them fully, and doing what we can to calm ourselves. Then we can ask ourselves this question: Is this stress coming from certainty? Is this really a dangerous or difficult situation, or am I creating a story that may not be true?

Either way, a calm mind is in a better position to deal with whatever is happening. And we better equipped to see through a story we might be creating about a bear that doesn’t exist. Or a roommate who might be deeply troubled, but isn’t a danger to others.

And, I’m happy to report, my son graduated from college and never once got stabbed!