It seems as though anxiety is running rampant in our society today. I see clients everyday whose anxiety is a problem big enough that it affects their life on a weekly or sometimes even a daily basis. The affects can range from physical symptoms, relational issues, work issues, and even up to full panic attacks. It may come as a shock to some that anxiety was originally developed by our brains to help us not hurt us. It is a protective factor that can keep us safe and alert us of danger.
Where does the anxiety originate?
When we are kids, we cannot process the world or even protect ourselves the same way we can as adults. We are in many ways at the mercy of the adults that are around. Because when we are young we cannot process fear and pain the same way adults do, our brains create defense mechanisms to help get us through our childhoods as unscathed as possible. These defense mechanisms can be a whole host of different behaviors and anxiety can be one of them.
Anxiety is suppose to alert us that we are in danger. That is why our bodies go into a “heighten alert” when we are anxious (which is why many suffer physical symptoms when they are anxious). Kids develop anxiety when they are in situations that are abusive or unsafe. This is actually really helpful in our childhoods. It can help us escape danger if needed. The problem is defense mechanism do not just disappear on our 18th birthday. These defenses that helped us in our childhoods tend to not work well when we are adults.
How does that affect us now?
Imagine a child whose father criticized him very harshly and painfully whenever he was not perfect or the best at something. The criticism was painful enough that he started to have a large amount of anxiety whenever he would perform sports or public speaking. Of course it is normal to have some anxiety when doing these activities, but his was almost debilitating. Now as an adult, he has constant anxiety that causes him to be unable to relax. His work numbers are not good enough or he is not good enough at his hobbies. The anxiety that once helped him cope with his father’s criticism as a child is wreaking havoc on his as an adult.
Another case could be a girl whose mother would wake her up suddenly in the middle of the night to yell and scream at her. At times she would be physical with her daughter as well. So as a child the daughter would be on heightened alert to see what kind of mood her mother was in so she could predict whether she needed to be prepared to protect herself that night. She now has difficulty falling asleep and lots of anxiety at bedtime. Again, what she had developed was imperative to help her through her childhood, but it is not working for her as an adult.
As an adult, it is difficult to change our paradigms. It is difficult to convince ourselves that the we now have control over protecting ourselves and how people treat us. We once felt so powerless as children, and we can now we can take back our power. This is the first step in being able to let go of the behaviors that are not working in our life!