How Anxiety Becomes Sticky
Updated: Apr 17, 2018
“What’s stronger than reality? Knowing that you are the reality maker.”
- Chopra & Tanzi (2013)
Nothing can feel more unsettling than anxiety. It creates a false picture of the world, telling us to be afraid of things when they are harmless. Sometimes we do not know how it sticks so well; even when we try, it can feel like a bad smell that is always on the edge of our awareness. We must learn not to fight our fear, but rather to stop identifying with it. Achieving detachment is made easier when we understand what makes fear sticky. We must break its reality down into practical steps. We can dismantle it for the simple reason that we are at the center of reality making.
Six Ways Anxiety Becomes Sticky
1. The same worry keeps returning. Repetition makes the fear response stick in the brain
Repetition can keep any response fixed. The mind is so trapped in itself that it cannot recognize the chronic worry as no good. It can then become a cycle of trying to keep the threat away (e.g. if I worry about failing, maybe it won’t happen). Awareness helps to end this repetition (i.e. consciously thinking thoughts like the following: “I am doing it again, the future is unknown, worrying about it is pointless, fear isn’t real, I am the one creating it”).
2. The fear is convincing. When we believe in the voice of fear, it takes over
If we think something is true, it is more likely to stick with us, but being convincing isn’t the same as being true. Anxiety is very convincing. Detachment has healing abilities. If we tell our fear that we don’t believe or accept it, it’s power to convince can diminish; “I am not alone, anxiety is just a feeling, I can handle this”. The mind is now leading the brain out of anxiety. Each time we do it, repetition becomes more and more on our side; every realistic appraisal makes the next one easier.
3. The fear stirs a memory. What we fear resembles something bad in our past, which brings back the old response
Your brain learns from experiences by comparing them to the past. This can be useful, but also destructive as it fuels anxiety and can create sticky memories. Bringing awareness to these types of memories can help them to become less sticky. Having new thoughts like “I am only scared of the memory, what is actually in front of me?”. Our memories tend to trigger a simple reaction: A is happening, I remember B (something unpleasant from the past) and I am having reaction C, just the way I always do. Even if we do not have control over event A and memory B, we can intervene on reaction C. Examine your response and move the negative feelings that surface by not running away until you feel the response you want.
4. Fear leads to silence. From shame or guilt we don’t speak our fears, so it festers
Some of the most difficult things we experience may not get expressed because they are coloured by guilt and shame. To come out of silence, we have to learn that it is alright to have any thought we want or that pops up. It is the anxiety attached to the thought that keeps us silent. We can cultivate thoughts like “I do not want to live with my guilt, there are others who have been where I am, not all will feel as bad about me as I do, the truth can set me free". People often improve upon deciding to speak out and confide in someone else even before they do it. The decision to break our silence in itself, has the power to heal.
5. Fear feels bad, so we shove the pain out of sight. But repressed feelings endure. What we resist, persists
Sometimes we try really hard to push our pain out of the way. Repressed feelings however, can rise up and have us feeling even more anxious. When we are open to all of our feelings and not just the nice ones, our fears lose their power. When we suppress our feelings, it is also hard to recognize that forgiveness is possible; it feels too far away compared to our anxiety. Forgiveness is usually the last step, so approach it step by step. The first step could be reading a book, starting a journal, seek counselling support, joining an online support group etc. When we take that first step, we stop paying attention to the fear and start accepting our feelings for what they are: natural events that belong in our lives.
6. Fear is crippling. We feel too weak to do anything about it
Fears ability to freeze us in our tracks is changeable. How we choose to reinterpret raw input can work to our advantage. We must lessen fears power to frighten us. Being afraid of fear can lead to muscle weakness, loss of enthusiasm, forgetfulness that we were once unafraid, poor appetite and sleep etc. Recognizing that we are safe signals the brain to restore to a normal state. To overcome our fear of being anxious, we can cultivate thoughts like “I am not going to die regardless of how scary this is, the more I face my fears, the more I will overcome them". Again, we are trying to get to a detached place.
Chopra, D., & Tanzi, R. E. (2013). Super brain: Unleashing the explosive power of your mind to maximize health, happiness, and spiritual well-being. Waterville, ME: Thorndike Press, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning.