To survive, animals must avoid predators; humans must avoid the loss of relationship.

Jon Frederickson, Co-Creating Change, 2013

For some people anxiety is a chronic state that they have lived with for most or all of their lives; for others anxiety is episodic, occurring during transitions, loss of relationships, or periods of uncertainty. Anxiety can come in the form of heart palpitations, sweaty hands, headaches, or an achy feeling in your gut. Others may experience panic attacks, intrusive thoughts, or obsessions and compulsions. Anxiety can be particularly powerful and visceral because it activates the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, affecting cardiovascular, respiratory, motor and gastrointestinal systems.

While the experience of anxiety can be extremely uncomfortable and even disabling, it also serves a purpose. The function of anxiety is to prepare the body to respond to danger. As Jon Frederickson points out, it is not predators that we modern humans need to avoid in order to survive, but the loss of relationship. Whatever threatens that relationship when we are young will create anxiety. When something occurs as adults that reminds us of those earlier experiences, we will experience that anxiety as though the threat of loss were current. For example, if in the process of growing up we learn that our parents discourage or reactive negatively when we express feelings such as anger or sadness, we will become anxious when we feel these emotions. Sometimes this is explicit in the ways we are rewarded for ignoring our feelings. For example, “being strong” and pushing feelings of sadness aside may be the primary messages one receives when enduring a loss or traumatic event. However, more often the learning is implicit, acquired not through one or two experiences, but through a thousand subtle interactions that are repeated with our early caregivers. Because this learning is mostly unconscious, later on we will have no idea that it is an emotion inside of us that is triggering our anxiety. Yet we carry bodily memories of these early attachments, and anxiety results when a current interaction reminds us of those early attachment experiences.

In therapy you will begin to understand the cause-and-effect relationship between your feelings and your anxiety. Through exposure to these feelings anxiety is reduced, as your body’s natural threat detection system is gradually updated so that feelings no longer trigger the threat of rejection or abandonment. Returning the body’s natural threat detection system to its proper function can not only help us regulate anxiety, but can free us up in many other ways to feel more creative, spontaneous, and fully alive.


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