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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Fear vs Anxiety (part I)

This past year I’ve been trying to understand more of how I am feeling – where are mine (hidden with numbing) and what is it?  Never an easy task.

The emotion, anxiety, is something I think I label when I didn’t know what was happening to me.  It was the ‘catch all’ emotion for those that I had trouble dealing with or hadn’t yet identified.  The majority of what I perceive to be ‘true’ anxiety happens before a blessed visit with my in-laws.  This anxiety could come 2,5 months before the planned event.  It would reach the surface when I would organise my house (some benefits) and I would start to control things with DH often of which would turn into arguments without much weight.

This last time I was more aware of the anxiety and I tried a lot of the stuff I’ve read – like remembering to take deep breaths.  This seemed to really help whenever I thought about the event coming up.  Focusing on the actual process of breathing helped me reduce how overwhelmed I would feel from thinking about it.  It was a daily struggle.

This past visit to my in-laws the most interesting thing happened to me.  I think I experienced fear and anxiety in the same situation (hindsight speaking)?  Here’s what happened:

The last night of our visit DH and I ran some errands to pick up a few things to bring back with us.  He dropped me off at Barnes & Noble bookstore and he went to the store next door.  It was Saturday night at 9:20 pm.

I was searching for some books in the Psychology and Self-Improvement sections of the store.  The store was for the most part empty.  A few were browsing the magazine and sales sections of the store and I had the self-help section to myself.  I was leisuring going through each row and then I had to go through the bottom row.  Since there was no one around I sat on the ground and made my way through the last row of the shelves.  I was so engrossed in searching for these book but not too engrossed to register that a woman started walking down my aisle (me on the the floor still).  Then, all of a sudden I almost got hit in the face by the woman’s purse.  I jumped and immediately said: ‘Oh, I’m sorry.’  She didn’t respond right away – which I registered.  Then, she says (which is somewhat delayed): ‘oh, I suppose it would be difficult to see the books on the last row.’  I responded: ‘yeah, it is’ and I continued my search.

A few minutes go by and I find one of the books I was looking for.  I continue to the other end of the aisle at the last shelf (now standing).  The stranger turns to me and asks me what book I found.  I decide to respond thinking she can clearly read the title as she is almost right next to me in the aisle.

(I tell her the title.)

Stranger: That is an interesting book; what is it about?

Me: (I read her a sentence from the back cover.)

Stranger: Oh, really? that sounds interesting, how did you hear about that one

Me: A friend recommended it*

Stranger: oh, that is interesting

Me: I’ll see how it turns out

I turn my body back towards the shelf and 15 seconds go by when I hear:

Stranger: you know you can get these books for half off at this place called ‘Discount Books’.  They are second hand.

She continues to talk and at this point I stop listening.  I began to feel irritated because I wanted to meet DH at the other store before it closed and secondly, I clearly have no interest in second hand books if I’m at this store (harsh thought in what I think is a response to the irritation).

After what seems like a sales pitch, I respond: Thanks for the tip’  and I physically again turn my body again in search of the other books on my list.  As I make my way towards the other end of the aisle she begins:

Stranger: I’ve been reading about how to move on from my past (she points to a chapter in the book she is holding) since I was in this relationship that broke my heart – he hasn’t been able to move on from his past and I have and…(she continues to give me an example about her ex-boyfriend’s communication with his ex-wife).

(When she was finally done)

Me: It sounds like you know what you need to do and books can help. (I turn towards the shelf again)

Stranger: There was this one time when I noticed that he purposely left a cooler at her house (again another example…blah, blah)

Bookstore Loud Speaker: 15 minutes until we close; we re-open at 10am tomorrow

Stranger: blah, blah (she continues on and then she begins a third one)

Me: (I interrupt her) I need to go; good luck finding what you need.

As I was putting one of the books back on the shelf she says:

Stranger: Let me just finish the story by saying that he…

That was my exit cue and as I was leaving the aisle I saw her friend come up to her.

I checked out of the store with one book* and ran to meet DH at the store next door and I told him what had happened.  There are so many elements of this story that are unreal  – even telling the story for a second time here I see a lot of ways anxiety was there before fear registered.

Hugs, TR

* The book I was holding (and purchased) was ironically The Gift of Fear by Gavin De Becker.  Thank you, Judy, for the recommendation.

Related Articles:

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; Self-Soothing