In the last few weeks, anxiety has come up numerous times in my personal facebook feed. This might be reflective of the kind of people I am friends with: women who are not afraid of vulnerability, and tend to bravely share their authenticity with the world; however, I tend to be of the opinion that I am not all that unique in this world. I have a feeling that the topic of anxiety is rising to my awareness because mental health issues are rising to awareness.
In the face of all the gun violence, from police shootings to school shootings, mental health has been a hot topic over the last few years. As a mental health professional, I have stayed fairly quiet on these topics. It's always more complicated than it seems, and I have struggled to figure out how to distill my words into something short and meaningful that will add value to the global conversation. Anxiety keeps coming up however; anxiety, a common place feeling every one of us can relate to, showing up as butterflies in one's stomach, weight on one's shoulders, or that dreaded pit that eats away at one's stomach lining. Anxiety, which has it's root in our fight or flight center, keeps us safe from dangers like rejection.
Wait, what? Rejection? Yes. Rejection. Our fight or flight center is not always terribly accurate. When we've experienced a trauma, our brain processes that away and then warns us anytime it thinks we might be getting ourselves into a situation where that trauma might be re-lived. Unfortunately, trauma takes many forms, including that of rejection. When the possibility of rejection (or other trauma) is triggered, our brain tells us to fight (do something to them before they can reject you-I can't help but think of the school shootings when this is mentioned) or flight (shut down and walk away! They don't like you-you can't be good enough, so just get out of here!). Neither option is very healthy, and both leave people feeling very alone.
But this is the ugly paradox: in both scenarios, the people with anxiety are surrounded by people. Without people, in fact, they wouldn't feel the fear of rejection, and yet rejection isn't what they are left with when fight or flight takes over; they are left with loneliness. When we fear rejection, because someone in our past was unkind, or our parent's didn't give us the opportunity to form the secure attachments we all crave and need as children, we harden our shells, build our walls up high and strong, and then struggle with our anxiety alone and in shame. We hide our true selves, putting on the smiles we think everyone wants to see, and anxiety follows. Brene Brown agrees, “If you trade your authenticity for safety, you may experience the following: anxiety, depression, eating disorders, addiction, rage, blame, resentment, and inexplicable grief.” The irony is that the antidote to shame and anxiety is empathy, and empathy is only achieved when we lower those walls, soften our shells, and connect with our community, fully, vulnerably, and authentically.
I am posting one of the articles that inspired this post, called 'My anxiety convinces me everybody hates me' here.