Four Things To Ease Your Anxiety: Part Three

Photo by Todd Cravens on Unsplash

Slay your Safety Behaviours

In the previous article in this series: Four Things to Ease Your Anxiety: Part Two, I said that all living creatures from bacteria to dolphins have two basic directions: forward and back.

We either advance towards the unknown which rewards us with food, fame, fortune or death; or we retreat to the known which offers us safety or stagnation.

A rat in a scientist’s cage goes into a tunnel. In the tunnel it finds candy. This reward encourages the rat to go into more tunnels. If it gets electrocuted, it starts to avoid tunnels as dangerous places.

If we risk our money on the roulette table and we win big, then that makes us feel happy, and we will play more roulette. If we lose, then we retreat to safety and roulette becomes tagged as something unpleasant.

There are only two directions: forward and back.

Psychologist Tara Swart in her book The Source divides emotions into two groups:

  • Survival emotions (fear, anger, disgust, shame, sadness ). These seek distance (run away)and are under the control of cortisol.
  • Attachment emotions (love, trust, joy, excitement) seek proximity, are under the control of oxytocin, serotonin, dopamine.

Each experience gets tagged with a label of avoid or approach — fear or pleasure.

Add to this Hebb’s Rule that says that the more a neural pathway is activated, the stronger it gets. What this means is that the more you avoid something, your neurons get rewired and the stronger the urge to avoid that thing becomes.

At the biological level this goes on with neurons, electricity and chemicals, but there is also the subjective experience of what this process feels like. So with anxiety, it’s downright horrible. With pleasure, it’s pretty sweet.

How Behaviour Arises From Belief

A belief is just an idea that you are convinced about. You identify with it. You know it to be true. I say know it, but in fact, your beliefs can be mostly unconscious but still cause physical symptoms.

If you don’t believe me, consider the experiments that measured physiological responses, e.g. pupil dilation, skin conduction, heart rate, breathing rate, when psychologists showed people racist images.

People who absolutely swear, and probably earnestly wish, that they are not racist, show perceptible physical responses when shown pictures of people from different ethnic backgrounds. These core beliefs can exist below our radar.

So if you believe something, this belief (unconscious, or not) will cause a bodily response which is felt as an emotion, whether you want it to, or not.

  • And these physical emotions cause behaviour.
  • And then, behaviour causes life.

Yes, behaviour causes life. If you believe you are worthless, you will feel worthless (depression), and you will behave as if you are worthless and people will treat you as if you are worthless and that will confirm your belief that you are worthless. And so on, round again.

But what if you’re not really worthless? What if your belief is wrong? But because you’re unquestioningly convinced about it, your whole life is shaped by a false belief. Some call that Fate. But really, it’s time to surface this process and change it.

Safety Behaviours

People who have anxieties hedge them around with Safety Behaviours. This concept comes from Cognitive Behavioural Therap.

Say, you have a fear of having a heart attack. You notice a twinge in your chest. This twinge triggers the belief you are having a heart attack, which triggers the anxiety about having a heart attack, which makes you behave to avoid having a heart attack. So, you may avoid taking the stairs. You may walk slowly. These are Safety Behaviours.

Remember, there are only two directions: advance and retreat. By taking the stairs — an apparently innocent action — you just hit retreat, and as Hebb’s Rule tells us, that reinforces and strengthens the retreat pathway in your brain. You have just increased the anxiety response.

My personal anxiety story is that many years ago, I had a panic attack on a busy motorway exchange (freeway, autobahn) outside London. I didn’t know what the heck just happened. I thought I was going to die.

Henceforth I avoided that road, soon I kept off all roads like it, then away from major highways, then quiet streets, and finally driving altogether.

Each time I retreated, I reinforced the retreat pathway and strengthened it until it grew so strong it took over my life. These were Safety Behaviours.

And there was something it felt like to hit retreat. It felt safe; it felt good. Facing fear made me feel awful but running away from fear made me feel euphoric. Just like it’s supposed to.

Safety behaviours feel good but are actually terrible.

If I was running away from a tiger or a man with a knife or a bush fire, then running away is what should happen. But in this case, my fear arose from a false belief. I was perfectly capable of negotiating that road. I’d done it for years. I do it now.

And I would use my brain to support my safety behaviours. I would give every smart reason why I should avoid those roads. They were sensible, perfectly rational excuses, but despite my sound reasoning, it was anxiety driving every one of them.

More Examples of Safety Behaviours:

  • Fear of heart attacks; avoid stairs and exercise.
  • Fear of not getting to the toilet; plan routes with bathrooms all the way
  • Fear of bridges; take the long way round
  • Fear of supermarkets; shop locally
  • Fear of social situations; stay home
  • Fear of deep water; swim by the edge of the pool.

All of these reinforce your anxiety. They do not help.

So what’s to do?

Hit The Gas

Photo by Maksym Kaharlytskyi on Unsplash

Forward reinforces forward, back strengthens back. So I started to go onto the big roads again. My safety behaviours were; avoid certain times and weathers, avoid overtaking, avoid driving over 70 mph (60 at times).

Each time I took one of those safety behaviours, I made my anxiety stronger.

I remember thinking, I need to abandon all my safety behaviours.

One day, I’m on the road. Weather reasonable. Not in a rush. I checked. My rational brain told me it was safe to overtake. Nothing was coming. But my fear made me hold back. I was scared of panicking while passing the slower car and losing control and crashing. Not that that had ever happened, but I believed it would.

In the end, I overtook

Paaaaaaannnnniiiiiiicccc! Arrrrrgggghh!

Paaaaaaannnnniiiiiiicccc! Arrrrrgggghh!

Paaaaaaannnnniiiiiiicccc! Arrrrrgggghh!

(My panic used to make the world go black and white. Weird.)

I would grip the wheel so hard. I would shake. I would sweat and then:

Paaaaaaannnnniiiiiiicccc! Arrrrrgggghh!

Went to: Nothing happened. Really, nothing happened: I just overtook. So I did it again. Then again.

And the more I did it, the weaker than anxiety got. If I discovered a safety behaviour, I would deliberately cut it out. I looked out for safety behaviours because they can be cunning disguised as a reasonable course of action. Behind their disguises, they are still just anxiety.

And as I deliberately did the opposite of my safety behaviours, the anxiety got weaker, until it was like a tiny baby, not the 800 lb gorilla it had been slapping me around.

So what’s the advice?

When you have the choice of the brake pedal or the gas pedal. Hit the gas. It’s biological. It can’t help but work. You don’t have to believe in it. Just do it.

Reinforce forward!

Slay your Safety Behaviours!

And next time: Part Four. Woo Woo Methods and Meditation.

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