To be safe or to be free: Choosing liberty over anxiety

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.

Avoiding danger

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 This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Tips on changing behavior during challenging times

In many cases, these challenging times – COVID-19 pandemic, economic strife and racial unrest – can be impacted by our behaviors, especially with regard to education, collaboration and action. There are also other health, medical, social and financial changes and shifts we all may need to con-sider making over the next several months and years, which will take time and effort.

Following are tips on behavior change, based on my certifications in this area, that may help you continue to survive and thrive during these challenging times and beyond.

• Understand how long it takes to make a lasting behavior change. As I mentioned in my February column, according to B.J. Fogg, a professor at Stanford University, it takes approximately 66 days to make a behavior change. For most of us in the Bay Area, we’re nearly three months into the quarantine, so hopefully many behavior changes we’ve had to make are starting to stick.
• Accept reality and our new normal. While times are tough and the current situation can be difficult to bear sometimes, having an acceptance of this reality and our new normal can go a long way in making behavior changes. The more we try to resist and fight it, the harder it will be. Therefore, letting go and releasing what was and embracing what is can be really helpful. It also will keep us more focused on making the changes we need to make in our lives and in society.
• Make changes for the present and future. Right now, shelter-in-place orders are still going on in many parts of the country, while they are being lifted in others. Many businesses, out-door recreational facilities, outdoor social gatherings and protests are being permitted with recommendations to wear face masks where appropriate, practice social distancing and take all sanitary and safety precautions.

To plan for the future, many households and businesses have been cutting spending, in-vesting and saving during these hard economic times.

To prepare mentally, physically and emotionally for being under lockdown for many more weeks or months, being in the midst of continued racial injustices and violence occurring in most major cities and needing to protect our jobs or businesses or potentially look for new ones, we may need to make behavior changes to take care of our health and well-being. Such changes could involve education, awareness, honest dialogue, charitable giving, support of important causes, exercise, nutrition, sleep, productivity, a positive mindset, stress management, and more.

• Continue to positively reinforce the changes. With any of the changes previously mentioned or even additional changes we may need to make, it’s critical to understand why they may be so important to each of us, take action to make the changes and then positively reinforce them every day so we’ll be motivated to keep making them again and again. This is where a lot of the effort comes in to stay motivated and determine how to encourage ourselves and others to keep going with these changes, especially right now.
• Make the changes habitual and a part of daily life. If we continue to make changes, practice them daily and positively reinforce them for 66 days or more, it’s possible to make these changes a habitual part of our daily life, which could help save lives and protect our families, friends, people in our communities, businesses and ourselves. And even as we look ahead to the future, society will be different for a while and possibly forever.

We all may need to be flexible and ready for whatever changes lie ahead. Knowing we’re taking the time to reflect, plan ahead and take the appropriate actions to make behavior changes now could be so helpful for us and those around us in the future.

Reena Vokoun is founder and CEO of the Los Altos-based Passion Fit, a health, well-ness and fitness lifestyle company. She is currently livestreaming fitness and dance classes on Zoom 9-10 a.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. For a class schedule and more information, visit passionfit.com.

El Camino Healthcare District board OKs $2.4M for widespread COVID testing

Rengstorff Park
Andrew Yee/Special to the Town Crier
A Mountain View resident is tested for COVID-19 during a pop-up testing event in Rengstorff Park. The County of Santa Clara Public Health Department deployed a mobile testing unit to the area for a few days in late May in an effort to test as many people as possible to track the virus’ spread.

 With a $2.4 million shot in the arm from the El Camino Healthcare District’s board reserves, El Camino Hospital officials hope to test 20,000 local residents for COVID-19.

The testing, available at El Camino Health’s Mountain View campus, is available by appointment for anyone who lives, works or attends school within the district – an area that incorporates most of Mountain View, Los Altos and Los Altos Hills, a large portion of Sunnyvale and small sections of Cupertino, Santa Clara and Palo Alto.

Stay healthy and active at home with virtual workouts

Marcie Shapiro” width=
Courtesy of PhysioFit
Zumba teacher Marcie Shapiro is just one of many fitness instructors who have moved classes online. PhysioFit owner and Pilates instructor Kim Gladfelter describes virtual Zumba as a “dance party” that puts clients in a good mood.

The coronavirus pandemic continues to impact everyone, changing the way we live, work and view the world around us.

Thriving, not just surviving: Don’t let pandemic exacerbate seniors’ social isolation

Senior connections” width=
Courtesy of Greg Hartwell
Sheltering in place has presented time and the impetus for extended families to reconnect virtually, and – after the lockdown is lifted – hopefully reverse the trend of social isolation for older adults.

We are now a couple of months into the pandemic crisis, and it’s pretty clear that unless you live on a remote island in the Pacific, the virus has affected your “normal” way of life in significant ways, from the devastating to the merely annoying.

Staying on top of your mental health during the pandemic

Journaling” width=
Courtesy of Pixabay
Los Altos psychiatrist Danielle Kamis suggests journaling as an outlet during the required shelter-in-place period.

The coronavirus pandemic presents new, and even frightening, challenges that many people have never previously experienced. Our daily routines have been markedly disrupted, leading to ever-increasing levels of anxiety and stress physically, mentally and financially.


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