The Anxiety Paradox – Turning Off Our Survival Instinct

Breath work, meditation, yoga, grounding techniques, etc. all of these things are very familiar to me. I practice them all daily. For a long time now I’ve also unfortunately been practicing “toxic positivity” by beating myself up when I’m unable to utilize these practices when it really matters. I often find myself feeling like a hypocrite, a phony, or a failure because of the frequency and intensity of my chronic anxiety. Why can’t I overcome this? Why can’t I practice the things I preach every Saturday morning to my yoga students? Why hasn’t any of this spiritual work helped me find my way back to inner peace when I need it the most? These are the questions I beat myself over the head with when I’m already in a state of anxious distress.

The other day, it was almost as if in the midst of my panic, I could hear this inner battle going on inside of me. Each time I tried to soothe my agitated mind, it lashed out and resisted that comfort. No! It seemed to be saying. Don’t you understand! These feelings, this fear, is important! You have to stay vigilant. You have to stay alert, or you won’t survive. This is serious!

Regardless of what you’re anxious about, this is what your body and those lower parts of your brain truly believe. The nervous system is on high alert. In the majority of human history, this would only occur in possibly life threatening situations. Our bodies and minds aren’t able to differentiate being chased by a predator and being afraid to make a phone call. No matter how many times we try to calm ourselves down or how many different methods we use to do so, our deeply ingrained survival mechanisms are resisting it with everything they’ve got.

I really don’t know how to overcome this. It seems like if we can practice talking ourselves down, so to speak, enough times that we will learn that certain experiences aren’t really life or death. However, there are so many complex variables that trigger my anxiety. It’s not always something as straight forward as making a phone call or meeting someone new. In addition to that, it’s not usually in response to something that happens regularly in the same way. Anxiety seems to be lurking behind every corner for me just waiting to pop out at the worst moment. Sometimes I genuinely can’t even pinpoint what’s causing it. So how can I reassure myself when I’m so afraid?

The strongest thing any living thing has is its instinct to avoid danger and stay alive, so how can we possibly override that powerful urge? How can we teach it that it’s okay in some situations but an overreaction in others? These are the questions that leave me doubtful that I’ll ever truly be able to make peace with anxiety. It feels so pressing, so urgent, and the mere thought of letting it go when it’s gripping me in that moment feels the same as accepting death.

Fight, Flight, or Freeze – Understanding the Three Responses to Anxiety

The anxiety disorders that we suffer with as a society today are a mutation of the primitive mechanism that once helped us to survive. Our nervous system is structured for attending to sudden, short-term danger that we would respond to by either running away, fighting for our lives, or freezing and camouflaging ourselves from predators. Unfortunately our society and technologies have far surpassed our biological evolution at this point. Our old ways of dealing with the original stressors we faced in nature are no longer translatable to modern problems.

Despite our problems being more long-term and complex, our nervous system’s response still manifests itself in similar forms to address stress. It is not always easily recognizable as what most of us think of as anxiety. I believe we still have the instinct for fight, flight, or freeze, it just looks quite different now than it did for our ancestors. I believe a lot of the behavior exhibited by people today is in fact due to anxiety.

Flight

Our flight response is what I believe most people mainly associate with the modern expression of anxiety. While we may not actually run away, this is the sensation we are used to describing as anxiety. It is easy for me to identify this inner urge to get away from the situation. This is the only mental state that I attributed to my anxiety disorder for the majority of my life. However, recently I’ve discovered that a lot of my other behavior can also be traced back to my nervous, unstable mental state.

Fight

I have struggled with anger since my teenage years. I never really considered that it had anything to do with my mental illness though. I felt that it was just a part of my personality or temperament. I’ve come to realize that, in fact, it is my anxiety that makes me so quick to anger. I had heard that underneath anger, there is often fear, but even then I didn’t make the connection. While anger may not always be a reaction to anxiety, I feel mine usually is. Understanding this has allowed me to be much more compassionate with myself when I become angry, as well as have more sympathy for others when they exhibit this violent emotion. When we know that anger is coming from a place of fear, it shifts our response to it immensely.

Freeze

This is another possible reaction to anxiety that I’ve only recently identified. Most people attribute procrastination to laziness or simply not caring. I suppose it can certainly stem from these things, but I believe now that it is primarily another carry-over of our nervous system’s primitive reactions to stress. If we can’t used our increased adrenaline to run away or fight, we freeze, or in other words try to avoid the problem or dangerous encounter. Unfortunately, avoiding a midterm paper won’t result in the deadline disappearing or going away like a predator that hasn’t spotted us would have.


I’m not suggesting that these behaviors are justified because they come from a place of fear, discomfort, or anxiety. However, I do think that it’s important we understand the source of these troublesome habits we or others in our lives might display. At the very least, it can give us some insight into our own behaviors that will be crucial in learning to change them. Many people feel badly about themselves for things like procrastinating or having a short temper. They internalize society’s view of these things and make matters worse by believing they are just a lazy or mean person. Getting a deeper understanding of the root of these issues can help us offer more patience and grace to ourselves as well as others.

Recognise Your Fight or Flight (or Freeze) Responses