Serenity in an Age of Anxiety

    Anxiety and its close relative, fear are your built-in home security system.  Don’t eat that food of dubious providence; it could be poison! Watch out for people who are overly friendly, not friendly enough or remind you of Uncle Wally. You know how shifty he was. Some security systems are set on high alert while others are less easily alarmed.  Teenagers under the influence of hormones and an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex, will override the system to some extent.  They engage in risky behaviors without considering the consequences for the adrenaline rush or to prevent social exclusion, which to them feels like the ultimate danger.


As we age, we tend to get more cautious. Most people over sixty prefer a nice cup of tea over a bungee jump. They are less apt to take big risks because the body has less ability to handle the wave of stress hormones induced by surprises and thrills over time. Neurotransmitter levels naturally decline, also. Dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with the higher drive for excitement and novelty found in adolescents is among the first to drop as we get older.[1]


The bottom line: anxiety is the body’s biological response to our innate desire for safety, which increases with age. It is a biological imperative for most of us. Even those who seem tough and fearless are worried about something, even if that anxiety is no more than the fear of missing out or not reaching their potential. We want to appreciate how our bodies are designed to protect us without being overrun with excessive worry or shut down by protective impulses.


The first step is to be aware that the nervous system reacts automatically before you can consider other options. Further, the brain does not distinguish between real and perceived danger. If you are worried about losing your job, you will generate the same stress hormone response as if you lost your job.  This is why people can be relieved when they get bad news. A pink slip in your mailbox can be liberating after months of losing your job in your mind.

The worst that could happen, that is someone who you love is hurt or even killed, can be less stressful than the ongoing worry about such an event.


It behooves you to observe and question your thoughts. The body may be designed to keep you safe but the mind can get tangled in the security system and leave you unable to distinguish between real and perceived stress. When your heart rate goes up, you might feel worried but something is not necessarily wrong.  If you are in danger, use your instincts and get out but most fears are not about immediate threats. Consciously slow down your breathing. After inhaling hold the air in your lungs for a few seconds and then exhale leisurely.  In this moment, are you safe? If so, you can give your security system a break.



Neuroconnections            Five-year old Addie often needed something in the middle of the night. Sometimes it was a glass of water or a reassuring hug.  Often a nightmare required immediate discussion and analysis.  Unfortunately, her father got cranky if she woke him up and her mom was a heavy sleeper. Addie had limited options but she also had needs. Reluctantly, she tiptoed into her parent’s room and lightly shook her mom.  Startled, her mom would jump up and scare both of them.


One night she stood over her sleeping mother contemplating once again, how to best wake her. She stared at her mom weighing her options and her mother woke up. Addie was astonished!  She projected what she needed from her mind to her mother’s and the results were magical. From that point on, whenever she needed something in the middle of the night, she stared at her mom until she woke up. Five year old Addie had accidentally encountered and tapped into the ‘extended mind’.


Jean Piaget, the renowned Swiss psychologist, discovered that children under the age of ten or eleven mistakenly believed their minds were capable of extending beyond their own heads and into the world around them. After eleven they assimilated the “correct” materialist view that thoughts are in their head. Traditional societies and spiritual traditions all over the world agree with the pre-adolescents that minds and souls reach out beyond the body but modern scientists are split. Some insist that your feelings, memories and identity are no more than the firings of an interconnected web of neurons in your brain while quantum theory and other scientific research supports the theory that all minds are connected. [1]


Scientists will continue to debate the nature of reality but we have all experienced or at least heard of examples of the extended mind. Bill felt so unsettled one day, he canceled his afternoon schedule and rushed home only to find his partner unconscious on the floor after a freak accident. We have all thought of a friend or long lost cousin only to have them contact us shortly thereafter. Beyond these everyday occurrences, why is the extended mind important?


The extended mind is a manifestation of our connectedness.  Proof we are not alone or separate from those around us. All the religious, political, gender, racial and economic differences that we think separates people are completely irrelevant to the extended mind. Everyone is in the club. So, if you feel disenfranchised or abandoned, don’t let your brain fool you. People can exclude and treat you like an outsider but you are part of the extended mind no matter how anyone behaves. Knowing we are all connected opens up a world of possibilities. Maybe your day-to-day life will not shift immediately but the realization that we are all connected, over time, changes everything.

Post #16


[1] Sheldrake, R. The Sense of Being Stared At : and other aspects of the extended mind.  (Crown Publishers 2003)

DisappointmentHolly* and her parents had always had a tight bound.  When it was time to go to college, she chose one in the city where she grew up so she would be close to home. She worked hard and never went through a serious rebellion stage possibly because she was prone to anxiety or perhaps because she was not inclined.


So, imagine her parent’s shock when they got a message from her saying she was severing all ties and did not want to hear from them again. No discussion.  No warning.  The grieving parents combed through their memories of past conversations, disagreements and possible misunderstandings looking for an explanation but there was none to be found. Their daughter had deserted them for no discernible reason and they were understandably heartbroken.


We all know big and small stories of betrayal, hurt and disappointment. Can you believe William was cheating on Denise?  Did you hear that Laura in accounting was cooking the books? I can’t believe Charlie did not call me back. Broken hearts and promises with a side order of crushed expectations  are a normal part of human relationships yet we always seem surprised and continue to get upset when other people have emotional reactions, human failings or don’t follow our script for them.


Are people just selfish, dishonest and cruel? Absolutely not.  Most people aspire to be kind, honest and helpful but we perceive their actions from widely different perspectives depending on our own experiences, values and expectations. A person cannot take into account the reactions of everyone they care about before taking a job or leaving an unhealthy relationship. Sometimes people act out of anger or desperation and react in ways that have little to do with the recipients of these behaviors.


The road to happiness and peace of mind is paved with few expectations around other’s behavior and high levels of love and forgiveness for actions that disappoint us. This is possible when we accept others will do things that upset us.  The closer the relationship, the more bitter the disappointment.  We can take responsibility for our part in causing pain in others but when conduct is offensive or mean, it usually has little to do with us. Lashing out is a reaction to a perceived threat. The person lashing out thinks you can hurt them or make them feel worthless. If this is your goal you have some explaining to do.  Otherwise, they are wrestling with their own demons.


Two years pass and out of the blue, Holly’s mother gets a call.  Holly was struggling with anger, confusion and thoughts of suicide. She blamed her parents for her crippling anxiety and depression and wanted to hurt them because she hurt. With therapy  Holly discovered more effective coping strategies that did not include cutting off her family. Her parents spent two years racked with guilt wondering what they did wrong when the whole time the answer was nothing.

butterfly by Anatoli Styf  Blake* was the kind of woman other women wanted to be like and men liked to be with. Between her intelligence, effervescence and attractiveness, she was hard to ignore when she walked into a room. A few years ago she moved to a new city and for the first time in her life had a difficult time making friends. As her ambivalence about her new home grew into aversion, she found herself losing confidence and feeling dispirited.


One evening she tagged along with some acquaintances to happy hour.  As they left the restaurant, they passed several young men who rated the women in her group as they walked by. Because she was pretty, Blake was accustomed to rebuffing unwanted attention. She would roll her eyes or if pushed, describe in colorful terms what the accoster could do with their comments. She was confident in her 9 or 10-ness.


“There’s a six,” one man declared as she strode by.


“A six?” Blake said indignantly when she told the story later.  “I was so shocked that for the rest of the night all I could think of was, ‘I’m a six’.” When the shock wore off, she had to admit she let herself become a six. Her unhappiness and lack of confidence had changed her. Blake’s inability to make friends in a city where she felt like she did not belong told her she was not the person she thought. In the mirror she looked exactly the same but she was no longer connected to her true self.


How others see us is not as important as how we see ourselves obviously, but we must acknowledge the connection and how we allow the opinions of others and our experiences to affect us. We project our own worldview, history and prejudices on others and they on us to the point that it is hard to know who we are apart from the conflicting external feedback.  The ancient philosophical question, ‘if a tree falls in a forest and nobody hears it, does it make a sound?’ could be reframed to, ‘if you are perfectly fine and nobody notices are you still lovable?’ Are you kind only if others confirm your kindness? Are you desirable depending on whether the boys on the corner rate you an 8 or higher? Are you worthwhile only if you have the job, perfect children or loving partner to prove it?


When we are connected to our true selves which is the energy of love, what happens around us may shake us temporarily or elevate our anxiety for a time but then like Blake and Taylor Swift, we can shake it off by remembering our innate ten-ness. Our behavior or life situation may not be perfect or as we want but these are separate from who we are.

Blog #14

*Not her real name

By KellepicsImagine you are relaxing with a cup of tea or a glass of wine and suddenly Jesus appears in front of you. If Jesus is not your go to guy, then Abraham or Buddha.  Someone you believe is a bridge to something bigger than yourself.  For Millie, she imagines the Goddess Isis when she needs support. Whoever this figure is, pretend he/she/it appears in front of you in all their glory.


Now imagine feeling completely loved as if you were enveloped in the ultimate warm and soothing blanket because that would be the feeling if this figure was in front of you. Once you adjust to their presence, you hear a voice that says:


“I have come to offer you a great gift. If you agree, I will take away all of your fear. There will be no obstacles to peace of mind but you will no longer recognize your life.”


Do you want the superpower of fearlessness?  Not recklessness, but a life not controlled by fear.  Think about it. What would your life be like if you were not anxious about how others saw you, abandonment or survival?  You would still care for people and be kind but would not behave or make decisions based on fear vs. what you want.


You may be strong and adventurous already. Perhaps you are a success in your chosen field and are the sort of person that gets things done but these qualities are not the same as fearlessness. No matter how prosperous or popular you are, everyone is afraid of something even if it is just losing all the wonderful stuff you have.


Jon Paul* is a successful doctor. When asked if he would accept the gift of a life without fear, he declined. ‘As much as I wish I could,’ he explained, ‘fear has been a factor in so many of my decisions that I am afraid of what my life might be.’ The idea that there could be a life without fear intrigued him but in the ultimate irony, a life without fear scared him.


The world contains no fear that you have laid not upon it. And none you cannot ask love’s messengers to remove from it.   A Course in Miracles


What would you do if you were not afraid?  Is anxiety protecting you from danger or a convenient excuse to avoid a fuller life?  Jon Paul has decided to start looking at how fear may be holding him back. He is not ready to throw caution to the wind but perhaps ask if he needs quite so much.


*Not his real name.