If you google the word “anxiety”, the results will make you even more anxious. There are thousands of articles on this subject, which is evidence of the reality that it is a topic we deal with consistently in our day to day lives.
I would like to define terms a bit. In my research for this article, it often became muddy as to whether the authors were discussing anxiety, fear or stress. Because people tend to use these terms interchangeably and with varying connotations, it can really affect how you read this article.
Allow me to offer the following definitions of these terms in the context of this article:
Fear – an emotion that takes place when we are either in a situation beyond our control or under a threat. This can be real or imagined, but it is an emotional response. Fear can exist without stress or anxiety.
Stress – a physical response to an intense emotional or physical situation in which the body increases heart rate and senses are alerted. Stress can exist without the element of fear or anxiety. This stress response is viewed as healthy and natural under normal circumstances. However if stress in continual without being balanced by rest, it begins to deteriorate health instead of it’s natural function of preserving health.
Anxiety – a primarily mental state in which there is a preoccupation about a fearful or stressful situation. Anxiety is an unhealthy expression of either fear or stress.
For those of us who are aided by the use of imagery, allow me to offer the following example:
-Fear would be the emotional response that occurs when you turn the corner of a path in the forest and find yourself face to face with a grizzly bear. This feeling is valid; you do not have control over the bear and its actions, and your world is altered by its presence.
-Stress is the physical response as you either fight or flee the grizzly bear.
-Anxiety is the feeling that there is a grizzly behind every corner or refusing to go near any forest due to the possibility that there may be a grizzly. In this scenario there seems to be a preoccupation with the threat of grizzlies and their impact on your life or the lives of those you care about.
In this article we will look at three factors that enhance our anxiety, followed by a look at what healthy fear looks like in our lives.
Our level of anxiety is directly proportionate to our level of control in a situation (real or perceived), and over the course of our lives we will have numerous encounters with these scenarios. If these situations happen in either a rapid succession or in a consistent pattern, then the emotions associated with being unable to control the situation are compounded. One event is bad. Two events are worse. Add a few others, and a pattern of anxiousness develops. For my wife and me, this pattern revealed itself a few years ago. After experiencing two unrelated traumas in close proximity, we found that our anxiety was skyrocketing. In working with a trauma counselor, I learned of the reality of compounding trauma. Many times anxiety is seen as something that is just “in our heads.” However for many people, anxiety is the result of seeing the harshness of the reality of life in vivid and rapid succession in which they have not been able to heal from the first occurrence before encountering the second. In our journey as a married couple dealing with anxiety, we have had to explore the reality of control: simply put, how we don’t have control, at least not to the extent that we wish we did. Our faith has helped us navigate these past few years; however, it is still a daily process. If the anxiety is due to trauma, then there must be space created for healing to occur. If anxiety is the result of a pattern of feeling out of control, then we must look to how we can both lessen the pattern and create a system of healthy functioning. The reality is that we cannot control everything.Thankfully, we are not left to deal with this reality empty-handed as community, counseling and faith can prove to be invaluable tools for our use.
The second element that tends to magnify anxiety in our lives is that of capacity, when more is asked than we are capable of giving. This can lead to performance anxiety, self doubt and shame. However, often our unhealthy shame is a result of unhealthy expectations of ourselves. We are inundated with images of limitless individuals who are lifted up as the societal ideal. In reality, we all have differing capacities that are in flux throughout our lives. My capacity now that I am a father and husband with two small children is not the same as it was when I was a single person. It is not that capacity diminishes as much as it becomes divided and, rightly so, due to the creation of new relationships. If we do not acknowledge the societal, emotional, physical, relational, and spiritual changes in our lives and continue to operate as though everything in life is static, then our level of anxiety will increase. We must create space for life to happen. If we are operating at full capacity, then we so often have little, if any, left for unplanned occurrences. The creation of boundaries and the awareness of self allows us to navigate through the fluctuation of capacity in our lives. We must become students and stewards of ourselves and our relationships and not expect outside sources to cultivate our personal and professional health.
The last factor we are going to look at that enhances anxiety levels is that of investment. If you are not invested in a situation, then you will most likely have little anxiety regarding that situation. However, if you are deeply invested in a situation, then you will be deeply concerned about the outcome. This can manifest itself in our relationships with both friends and family but can also manifest itself in our work lives in given projects or ventures to which we have dedicated much time and energy. The level of our anxiety (or most often identified here as worry) is proportional to the depth of our commitment or dedication. An unhealthy coping method that may develop is the attitude of apathy; if I put myself in the position of not caring, then the outcome will not affect me. However, in moving towards apathy we are also devaluing the relationships, situation or person by saying that they are not worthy of the investment. When our sense of identity (personal or professional) is tied to the investment, our tendency towards anxiety/worry will also amplify. How we identify ourselves and our determination of personal/professional value will greatly influence our amount of anxiety. We must develop a healthy determination of value and also a realistic view of control in order to combat anxiety in areas and relationships where we are deeply invested.
We have a false ideal that we should live in a world without fear, but this notion would only lead to a world in which we didn’t value anything. Our goal is not to avoid fear, but instead how to cultivate healthy fear.
In his book “Voice of the Heart” author Chip Dodd refers to healthy fear as the feeling that allows us to experience risk, trust, dependency, collaboration, and ultimately, wisdom because it aids us in realizing our need for help. Going back to our analogy at the beginning of the article, we will not be able to avoid the unexpected grizzlies in our paths. However, healthy fear allows us to prepare, to recognize the signs that they are around, to bring along a companion or one who is more experienced with the paths we are on and to make wise choices when we are in an area where grizzlies may live.
Healthy fear acknowledges that we are not in control and also that we need help. Instead of denying our inadequacies and inabilities to deal with a situation, healthy fear engages us with our resources around us to deal with the situations we pass through. These resources – spiritual, emotional, physical and mental- help us to reach beyond ourselves and wrestle the grizzlies in our lives. Healthy fear thrives in an environment of vulnerability, where needs can be expressed freely and without shame. We must not allow anxiety to rob us of the beauty of the wilderness out of the fear of the wildlife.
We cannot rid the world of grizzlies, we cannot avoid the forest for our entire lives, but we can, through healthy fear, gain wisdom and community to help us navigate the wild beauty of our lives.
Grace & Peace,