To be safe or to be free? I often pose this question when talking about anxiety, worries and fears. That’s because we really do have a choice to make between anxiety and freedom, and this question makes us think about what it is that we truly want.
When we are anxious, so much of our time and energy is spent on avoiding risks and dangers. We often get caught up in the mindset that if we try hard enough, we can reduce our risks and thereby avoid our fears, but ultimately we end up feeling more afraid. It’s a common, vicious cycle.
You can think of it as a “posture of fear.” The more you posture that you are afraid, the more you feel afraid. It’s a contradiction: The more you try to make yourself safe, the more you actually feed the fear and anxiety. For instance, when someone with obsessive compulsive disorder repeatedly checks their stove to ensure it is off, they increase the doubt that their mind tricked them.
It’s true that some of our anxiety behavior does lead to less risk. However, it often leads to more emotional fear and hypervigilance, where you’re constantly on guard. This stance might keep you “safer” in some ways, but how does it make you feel? When we’re hypervigilant, we’re more tense, on edge, worried and panicky. In addition to those feelings, being on guard requires energy and leads to emotional fatigue.
Being on guard also teaches us that we’re only safe because we’re on guard. As a result, we often mistakenly believe that it’s our vigilance that is keeping us out of harm’s way. This further reinforces the idea that life is dangerous, that we must be cautious to avoid bad things happening. Sometimes, we form a superstitious connection between our hypervigilance and our safety, which just accelerates the cycle.
When our focus is on staying safe, we tend to avoid perceived dangers. We become so protective that we begin to believe there is no way we could handle whatever it is we fear. For example, many of us fear being socially embarrassed. We may spend countless hours worrying about how to act or how we will be perceived, all to protect ourselves from embarrassment. There’s even a common expression about this fear: “I died from embarrassment!”
In reality, embarrassment is, well, embarrassing, but typically it is short-lived. And the actual embarrassing moments we open ourselves up to are nowhere near as bad as we envisioned. Our guarded behavior and the fear of being embarrassed is where 90% of the pain and anxiety lies. It is in the perception, not the actual outcome.
When we’re so intent on avoiding danger, we’re really limiting ourselves. We hang back from experiencing new things, we never get to learn how resilient we really are, and that we have the ability to tolerate difficult outcomes. The truth is, we often cope much better than we think we will.
So this brings us back to the question of whether it’s better to be safe or to be free from our anxiety and the consequences it brings. In anxiety therapy, we generally do not make our clients any safer or take away the inherent risks of living life. So how do we reduce anxiety?
The first step is to carefully consider whether you really want to be free from anxiety. Are you willing to let go of some safety if that’s what it takes to gain freedom from anxiety? Or is safety of utmost importance to you, even if it causes you to feel more anxious?
Steps to freedom
To truly live life with less anxiety, you need to practice embracing the risks, sometimes actually throwing caution to the wind. Amazingly, by exposing ourselves to more risk and danger, we will often feel more free and at peace. Acting in this way is the exact opposite of hypervigilance – it’s seeking out risks.
Do I want to be safe or be free? If you decide on freedom, follow these three steps:
• Identify the areas where you attempt to control certainty and are hypervigilant.
• Practice consistently opening yourself up to risks in these areas.
• Observe the outcome and the impact on your anxiety over time.
We learn to cope with uncertainty, danger and anxiety through structured practice. As we practice taking risks, we no longer fear the uncertainty or react to it as much as we once did. And each time you face any anxiety or uncertainty in the future, you can ask yourself again: To be safe or to be free?
Los Altos resident Ernest S. Schmidt is a certified cognitive behavioral therapist with practices in Palo Alto and San Jose. For more information, call 461-9026 or email him at [email protected]