Fear vs Anxiety (part 2)

When I encountered the stranger in the post (Fear vs Anxiety part 1) at the bookstore, I broke my Stranger Policy.

My Stranger Policy mostly applies to situations when I’m alone outside.  I treat all strangers as potential threats – any kind of threat – violent, pick pocketing or another scam.  This policy applies to everyone  – men, children, old women, teenagers, groups of women.

Strangers approach me quite often when I’m alone.  When I walk to my language school from the train station (20 minute walk) I am approached at least once, if not more, as I walk through a tourist area of Brussels.  My policy is not to respond.  When approached I say ‘No’ and walk away.

Whenever I break the policy I ask myself: Why did I do that?  I never feel good about breaking it which is totally counter-intuitive to helping others.  All the signs were there that this woman (from part 1) was a potential threat.  Yet, I still continued, for quite a while, to respond to her inquiries.

The positive part of this experience was: had this situation happened to me a few years ago I would not have stopped the conversation short and left; I would have sacrificed my time for her needs.  There was definite progress in my actions and when I walked out of that store, I felt good about ending it before it continued even further.

After the incident, I read the Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker where he focuses on listening to true fear and its signals and I was challenged:

  1. My first conscious weird irratation happened when the stranger did not respond to my apology immediately.  She had a delayed response.
  2. My second conscious sensation was when she asked what I was reading.  This signal was a bit louder in my head and yet, I ignored it and answered.
  3. When I was listening to her, my mind started to look for and analyse the potential threats – she is trying to sell something, she is trying to scam me?  My mind was running through a list of all potential threats.

During her attempts to engage me in some sort of conversation, my mind was racing.  I was, for the majority of the interaction, focused on what she could do to me.

If I had experienced true fear, would not have the flight-fight response kicked in?  Yet, everything inside me felt like fear (heart racing, etc.)  And still, I didn’t respond after 2 signals, I stood there and continued to answer her questions.

My initial reaction was habitual: ignore the irritations and my own uncomfortableness and meet the needs of the other person.  My thoughts began dispersing every direction – Is she trying to sell me something? is she trying to con me? is she trying to rob me? what if she has a weapon?, etc.  This worrying went on for the duration of the conversation.

Daniel Goleman (from the book Emotional Intelligence) writes:

“And so the worrying mind spins on in an endless loop of low-grade melodrama, one set of concerns leading on to the next and back again.”

giftfearGoleman does clarify that worry can work – when it leads to a solution (what he calls constructive reflection).  The problem arises when we are never nearer to a positive solution (chronic worry, anxiety disorders).

Gavin de Becker, in the last chapter of the Gift of Fear, illustrates the same distinction with clearer lines:

“Worry, wariness, anxiety, and concern all have a purpose, but they are not fear.  It may well be something worth trying to understand and manage, but worry will not bring solutions.  It will more likely distract you from finding solutions.”

And no doubt, I didn’t find a solution immediately.  In my old ways (before recovery), I would never have found a solution until I was forced – the bookstore kicking me out at closing time or DH coming to look for me.  De Becker draws the line further:

“People use the word fear loosely, but to put it in its proper relation to panic, worry, and anxiety, … … … , real fear is not paralysing – it is energising.”

I often find myself in endless loops of worries and low-grad anxiety in a lot of situations.  But after reading this book, I started to question whether my anxiety, at times, is not masking a true fear signal.  De Becker references listening to our instincts and signals of true fear but this ‘listening’ is rather difficult for me because I never learned how.

Somehow the signals I felt with the stranger went unchecked – not listened to – after 2, actually 3 fear signals.  The first signal (that I didn’t realise until after) was she invaded my physical boundary – this was actually the first signal my body had noticed, if not my mind.  When she came walking down the aisle, I was sitting on the floor and her purse swung and almost hit me in the face until I quickly moved away (DH wondered if she had done this on purpose).

At times, real fear can be paralysing too – if we haven’t learned how to listen to our inner voice.  I think abused children learn repetitively to dampen the signals that come from the amygdala (emotional centre of the brain).  And albeit, some dampening is necessary in keeping certain signals in check (learning to delay gratification, self-control), it can go to extremes in abusive households.  Signals that are essential to survival (emotional survival as well) can be manipulated in abusive environments.

Even with the constant manipulation, the body doesn’t stop responding to stimuli that is dangerous / inappropriate* (as the amygdala is fully developed at birth).  In such environments, we are taught to reprogram that signal into something else (as our intellect is developing after birth).

The comment thread of the post on amygdala hijack (Through the Looking Glass) sums it up nicely:

If you are taught that you aren’t worthy of protection, then you will fly into a panic whenever you feel yourself in such a situation. The panic comes not from “overreacting,” but from the inner conflict between the natural survival instinct and the conditioning that we are somehow not worthy of protection/survival. -Kitty (Brave New Kitty)

In cases where anxiety is developed from real, authentic fear signals* (life and non-life threatening), the confusion (inner conflict) between the two creates an advantage for those who abuse.  Teaching a child to ignore / suppress fear signals can cause disproportionate reactions (appearing as overreacting, frozen or shut down) thus, providing them the necessary upper hand to manipulate the situation further to create the desired effect.   I often gave into their demands just to ease my own anxiety – a decision, an action has been taken – providing temporary relief from the anxiety.

Children who are abused are taught to re-wire emotional signals that lead to many complex problems in adulthood.  This manipulation (reprogramming) can manifest itself within the body in different ways.  Often developing from the repeated lesson: teach her to disregard reality and herself.

Hugs, TR

*In the book, The Gift of Fear, Gavin de Becker refers to several examples where psychological boundaries were crossed before the act of violence (physical harm) –  stipulating that crossing of psychological boundaries is a true signal of fear.

Further reading:

Weathering the Storm: Living and Coping with Anxiety

Through the Looking Glass: Name That Feeling: the Amygdala Hijack

Caliban’s Sisters: Pattern Recognition vs. the Parental Present

Brave New Kitty: Embrace Your Anxiety

In Bad Company: Fear vs Anxiety (part 1)

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21 thoughts on “Fear vs Anxiety (part 2)

  1. I have to reread this, study it more, but a lot rings true for me. There is an aspect also where a person can be grateful for any attention, even from a stranger. I know that feeling well. And it comes also from a scrambled childhood where your feelings were denied, or you were neglected, not listened to, etc. so even attention from

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  2. a stranger was attributed that you were ‘worthy’ of acknowledging. Either way, fearfulness or ignoring the ‘right’ to personal boundaries comes from the re-wiring of our childhood. And it’s not pretty. Further, I get this low level worrying stuff. Constant with me and it cuts into so much life.

    Lady Nyo

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    • Hi Lady Nyo,

      That is an insightful dimension to it; I have found myself drawn to people through gratitude too. I value being recognised and the feeling of belonging and worthiness. I think sometimes some people don’t cross our psychological boundaries when we first meet them – I know with certain N friends there ‘seem’ to not be any boundaries crossed until a bit later in getting to know them. Some are really good at this and I think this level of sophistication is scary. They test the waters – they move slowly – they take inch by inch.

      xxoo TR

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  3. Hi TR,
    Great post. It so useful to decipher all this to help us in future situations. I picked up on something that I have not seen before:

    “My initial reaction was habitual: ignore the irritations and my own uncomfortableness and meet the needs of the other person.” This I do too, and I know it’s something that will take a while to overcome. The next bit is the one where I had a new thought: “My thoughts began dispersing every direction – Is she trying to sell me something? is she trying to con me? is she trying to rob me? what if she has a weapon?, etc. This worrying went on for the duration of the conversation.”
    I would have been the same as you in this situation, and as I was reading this, the thought struck me that “why are we trying to ascertain what this person’s intentions are? If we are uncomfortable we should make an exit and quick.” I think we’ve been so “trained” not to trust our perceptions, like you say “teach her to disregard reality and herself”, that this is going to take some time to overcome. Maybe this should be another policy to implement: If we’re feeling uncomfortable, leave at once and don’t worry about the other person.

    Thanks for the shout out 🙂

    Hugs,

    Kara xxoo

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    • Hi Kara,

      Indeed, why do we shift focus to their intentions rather than focus on what is going on with us? I was thinking about the time when I would react to my mother’s lies and she would gaslight. I would tell her that her story was different yesterday and she would tell me I got it wrong – “TR you heard me wrong and misunderstood” – she often said that to me and in front of people whenever I would speak up. And who would believe a child’s intellect? We start to think we got their behaviour wrong and look everywhere else except internally to our feelings and reality to somehow find an answer.

      It does take time and I think we need to practice – stretch that muscle – like in your 2 posts on Standing Up for Yourself. Strangers are great practice ground as you mentioned.

      “Maybe this should be another policy to implement: If we’re feeling uncomfortable, leave at once and don’t worry about the other person.” – I think that is how emotionally in tune people react?

      Hugs, TR

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  4. Hi TR, this is a great post, and it makes me think about the anxiety I’ve been carrying about upcoming FOO visit. What you write makes me think more about de Becker–maybe time to give it a quick re-read, so as to clearly distinguish between real threat and internal struggle. That last point is extremely valuable–that much of what we suffer in such “violating” situations is an internal struggle between our training, even desire, to be polite, and our sense that someone is stepping over our lines. This is a very touchy area for ACoNs–sometimes I way overreact to someone who might not be meaning to step on my toes at all, but is just being friendly. However, that woman in the bookstore obviously had a screw loose–hitting you with her bag, then basically harrassing you with questions. I think also it’s significant that it started with you on the ground, sitting (how many times have we all done this in quiet bookstores–I sure have). My alarm bells would’ve been going off just like yours did. The crucial thing is that you purchased your book and walked away while she was still talking at you. At you. There’s no question that in big cities, like Brussels or anywhere, you have to be hyper-vigilant. Figuring out how to hone in on a fear signal instead of generalized smushy anxiety is something I need to work on too. Thank you for the shout out as well. Great post, it really starts another fruitful topic thread. love CS

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    • Hi CS,
      That is such a great point about our FOOs. When I was reading his book, I did see a lot of the information he presented useful in understanding what was going on with me in relation to them. Our FOOs in some ways hold the same threat as a stranger – more so than strangers. My reaction to this stranger was not based on prejudices (looking ‘safe’) – they were based on her actual behaviours towards me. Very similar to what is happening in our FOOs.

      Our feelings and anxiety or fear about FOOs are based on behaviours, repeated ongoing behaviours that do not stop – no matter how hard we try. Our fear is real and de Becker talks about how fear is based on reality. We tend to focus on what they will do when we next see them – which is natural because of our past fear signals constantly being ablaze with them crossing our boundaries. The anxiety I feel about seeing my FOO and in laws is based on fear – past fear but nevertheless fear. This changed how I viewed my anxiety. Fear based anxiety is a double edged sword – it helps us to know something is wrong but can hinder us from finding the right solution when we need it (totally thinking of the Indiana Jones sword video clip from Kara’s post).

      In case you are short on time, the chapters in the Gift of Fear I found helpful with re FOO were: Chapters 1, 4, 15. Chapter 4 breaks down the story told in Chapter 1 (emphasis on different boundaries broken) and Chapter 15 is about fear and anxiety.

      Love, TR

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  5. Hi TR,
    Thanks again for another ping! I really loved this post. I think it’s great that you have gleaned so much wisdom and awareness from this odd encounter in the book store. Sometimes, it’s easier to see things in these experiences than it is from our FOO itself. You’ve really pinpointed some key issues, maybe THE key issues: learning how to listen to our inner voice (alarms), and learning to put our own needs first. This is normal for people from normal families, but we have to learn how to do this as adults. As someone who’s been on the path awhile, I can say that I’ve gotten pretty good at taking care of myself this way, but internally I often still struggle with guilt when I have to do so. I don’t know that that will ever go away, but I don’t let it control me anymore, and that’s progress. Also, I think in practicing this new behavior, it’s even okay to err on the side of rudeness once in awhile. CS talked about overreacting, which I do sometimes, too–but I think these overreactions test our new boundaries, and teach us where our true, healthy boundaries lay. When I’m out motorcycling, I’m very liberal with my horn. I know horns are considered rude, but isn’t my safety–letting people know I’m there, making sure they see me–more important? In my mind, there is just no question. I’m just saying it’s okay if we do this. It’s okay if people get offended, or if they don’t understand. Being rude isn’t the end of the world, but letting unsafe people into our circle literally could be. That’s the choice.

    I also loved how you tied all of this to Gift of Fear. I loved that book so much. I loved the last section, too, where he talked about the difference between fear and worry. It was really eye-opening for me. And it tied in very nicely with this post.

    Great to see you doing so well, hon! And grateful to be part of your journey.

    Love,

    Kitty XX00

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    • Strangers are good practice! It is easier to see the rawness of the behaviours. We can look at it with a fresh perspective. It is so hard to do this often with my FOO.

      Yes, great point – we go to extremes – learning how to express them takes time. Many of missed on this period to do just that during our childhood.

      I do think it is okay to even go to extreme on safety issues. I can relate to your horn example. I am a person with huge, huge personal space. I love hugs from people I know but if any stranger comes close to touching me I freak out (not in crowded situations). This is something I suppressed for a while. And I walking up a really wide set of stairs and there were no people and this guys bumps into me. I look around and since he was behind me he didn’t just move. I yelled some profanity at him. Before I would always notice when someone broke my physical space barrier and then I would get disgusted and push it down and now I’m vocally doing stuff. When it surfaces for the first time, it won’t be pretty but it is okay. 🙂 Great point.

      Learned so much from your’s. Thank you.

      xxoo TR

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  6. OMG. I didn’t even notice the page header until just now! It’s gorgeous. Wonderful. Thanks for the attn about particular chapters in the de Becker. I think the biggest “threat” to me comes from inside me–depression. I fear my own feelings in response to seeing them all. I fear coming home and being deeply depressed at the start of another school year. I fear what I”ll feel when I say goodbye. I fear feeling all that tension between me and my mother; I worry what the psychic impact on me will be, on my health. That’s the fear I have. And I know it’s real.

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  7. Pingback: Part 2 over at In Bad Company… | The Project: Me by Judy

  8. I’ve so enjoyed reading your posts on “fear vs. anxiety”.

    Without full access to my natural feelings of ‘fear’, I’ve been a little yellow duckie in a shooting range. When I shoulda been afraid, I was beating myself up for being anxious. My FOO considered “fear” to be a weakness and as a sensitive child, they laughed at (shamed) me for being afraid. I learned to shut down my feelings.

    Throughout my marriage, several people told me they were afraid of my husband and I was like, “Huh? Why?” (Funny thing but ever since my divorce, I’ve haven’t had, not even one, panic attack. He really WAS a scary man!)

    I am pretty sure (or maybe optimistic) that should I meet another person like my X, I’d literally RUN the other direction. I think having full access to our emotions is a true privilege since many people survive this world by numbing or ‘shutting down’. When we do that, then we ARE like yellow duckies. I need to read more articles like this, TR, to keep me honest about the difficult journey it’s been allowing myself to be anxious or even fearful, without being ashamed of my feelings.

    Love
    CZ

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    • Hi CZ,
      I like how you state ‘full access’ to our emotions. That is a great way to sum it up. I too have been a yellow duck in many emotions. Shame was something I hadn’t starting to tap into until last year. Shame and fear and other emotions manifest itself into our bodies when it isn’t dealt with. They don’t go away by will power or shaming it away.

      It is so interesting the panic attacks went away after the divorce. How fear can manifest itself into anxiety at times is remarkable. The human body absorbs so much and tries to deal with it as best as it knows how to. Thanks for sharing this.

      Hugs, TR

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  9. Hi TR,
    having “full access” to the truth of my emotions ended up being more protective than I realized it would be. IN my above comment I worried I’d feel depression from the impact of tension. But dealing with all this head on let me take whatever was being leveled at me, hostility and shame-dumping, and turn it right around and drop it at the leveler’s feet. I did not accept any shame-dumps, because I refused to fall into patterns of feeling guilty because of THEIR anger, THEIR disapproval. Amazing how our feelings can protect us once we stop fighting their truth. love CS

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    • Hi CS,
      That might be an evolutionary approach to our survival. Humans evolved to have emotions; there has to be a survival mechanism attached to it? If we can access us them, then surely they provide a means of protection. Fear, anger, guilt, shame, no matter how ugly they feel, serve a purpose. They can’t protect us if we don’t know how to access them – which is where abusive people get away with it. Total manipulation of them to prevent them from carrying out its evolutionary purpose.

      Great thought, CS. Hugs

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      • Well, your post here helped me anticipate things in advance of the visit, TR. I was still surprised at how well my boundaries held up. I really didn’t anticipate coming away from that trip as ‘intact’ as I feel. Especially given my father’s blow up. I expected evil stinkeye from NM; I expected one sister to ignore me; I even was not surprised that my father lost his cool (just at how soon it happened); what I didn’t expect was my feelings to protect me. They did. And all the ‘pre-work’ of the last year blogging made ALL the difference. People who train us to distrust our feelings and perceptions; who use our feelings against us, who indulge their own while denying us our rights to feel what we feel–they are abusers. Once we believe that, deeply, our feelings can begin to HELP us instead of making us feel excessively vulnerable. night, talk soon. CS

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      • Hi CS,
        We have been untraining ourselves and trusting our feelings more. It is comforting to know what we needed was inside of us all along – rather than something external. I am so glad to be doing this journey with you. Hugs, TR

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