Blog: insights from Dr. Keren Sofer

Managing Anxiety When the Bear is Us (and our emotions)

I often tell individuals I am working with that if their goal is to completely obliterate any anxiety they are experiencing, they will fail. Of course, this is not meant to be discouraging or to deny their feelings or experience. I too know the discomfort and sometimes agony of anxiety, like all humans do. However, we need anxiety to survive in the world. That often used example of the bear chasing us in the forest works well to illustrate the usefulness of anxiety: all the cognitive, physical and affective systems that shift into high gear when we instinctively run away, freeze, or fight the bear will hopefully increase our chances at survival.

But what happens when the bear chasing us is actually our own thoughts? We have a memory of a painful, humiliating experience pop into our mind. Next thing we know, all systems go and we are completely drenched in anxiety. Or we have a thought about the future. Dread overcomes us. What if we fail, embarrass ourselves, disappoint someone else? Again, whether it’s that pit in our stomach, our heart racing, or some other indicator that our bodies are ready to confront (or run away from) the feared possibilities, we are back there again, in the discomfort of anxiety.

Less often do we hear or talk about what happens when the bear is our own emotions. This can seem like a confusing idea, because how do we understand being afraid of our own feelings? But, this can be an important consideration in deciphering what is happening to some of us who are contending with anxiety.

Here’s an example of what I am referring to: For some people, the emotion of sadness is particularly awful; any inkling of it gives way to anxiety. Feeling down, reminded of a loss or sad time from the past, even feeling lonely, might quickly link up to dread. Imagine the person who as a child picked up on the message that tears and sad feelings were not to be tolerated. Any sign of this emotion was met with the comment “smile, it’s not that bad.” The pain of loneliness this person experienced was denied by her parents, who were too busy or preoccupied to notice it. For this individual, sadness might be strongly associated with shame and failure. Now, as an adult, she is vigilant to any signal that she may be experiencing sadness, and reflexively she shifts into a state of anxiety.

Anger is another unpleasant emotion that I have witnessed be covered up with anxiety. Anger is complicated, because it is an emotion that arises secondary to hurt or sadness. It covers up the vulnerability of those other emotions. It is also complicated because it can have some of the same features as anxiety: accelerated heart rate, feeling hot, jumpy, adrenaline pumping. For some, it is so uncomfortable to sit in anger that they wouldn’t even be able to identify that the underlying emotion is anger: it feels much less threatening for them to identify their feeling as anxiety. Someone who has learned that anger ends up pushing others away from him and historically was not taken seriously by others in his life, could react with anxiety whenever he notices anger rising up. And the “noticing” can be extremely subtle, even unconscious, to the point where he does not even know that he has bypassed the anger altogether.

What, then, is the value in identifying that one has become fearful of his or her own emotions? In the absence of identifying this phenomenon, a person might spend a lot of time and energy working to do away with anxiety, when that is not actually the root of the problem. There are many strategies, behavioral and others, to help reduce (not eliminate) anxiety. But they will only work to a point, because as soon as the bear – those feared emotions – come after you (which they will, it is inevitable!), you are back at square one again.

Examining and understanding the emotions that may be leading to avoidance through anxiety will help one more fully understand their needs and desires. A clearer sense of one’s needs and desires will help one pursue them, whether for themselves or within  their relationships. Sadness, anger, loneliness, and so forth, give us information about our needs and desires, about what is not right in our lives; if we unconsciously react to those emotions with anxiety, we are being fooled into managing anxiety and ignoring the wealth of information that those bypassed emotions are giving us.