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What is Anxiety?

Updated: Dec 4, 2019

As far as we can tell we are by far the most intelligent creatures on the planet. Certain animals can beat us at certain tasks but there's no doubt that we are superior in overall intelligence. One of the costs of this intelligence is the burden of eternal vigilance. We recognize threats in our environment as well as most animals but our human level of consciousness allows us to imagine threats even when they are not present. We can anticipate and confabulate an infinite number of threats and threatening situations. Our safety, and effectively our mortality, is always a potential point of concern.

Your brain is constantly evaluating how dangerous your current situation is. Given that most of us live in settings that are historically and geographically some of the safest places ever, you would assume our anxieties would be at an all time low, right? Actually, the opposite is true. But why?

While almost every aspect of life has become safer we forget that a large part of our brain's threat assessment is the inclusion of memories of things that have already harmed us which we have not yet processed or figured out. So, our safety is both a blessing and curse. We now have to face our challenges much less than our ancestors did, leaving a lot of our anxieties unresolved. Throw in the fact that our understanding of the universe is just enough to know that there is a lot about it we don't know, and what we don't know scares us. The biggest source of our anxieties is our incompetence or self-perceived incompetence. If something that happened in the past still bothers you, your brain is saying that you have encountered something that you haven't mastered and that if you were to encounter it again you would be in trouble. It's added it to the list of potential threats in your memory.

Jordan Peterson teaches:

"Memory is to extract information from the past so that you don't repeat the same stupid mistakes. Once you master fire you don't have to be burned."

There are many different brands and styles of psychotherapy, but there is one truth upon which every practitioner will agree, and that is that the best treatment for anxieties is gradual exposure. If your anxiety reduction plan does not eventually include facing your fear or confronting your anxious thoughts then plan on being anxious for a very long time. But how do you confront your fear inducing memories? You need to ask yourself, "How was I rendered vulnerable in that situation and what would I have to do to make myself more capable if I were to encounter this same force again?"

Anxiety is a psychological report card. It is your body telling you that there was an important lesson about safety and vulnerability that you did not learn. In this sense, anxiety is ignorance and the antidote is knowledge. Deep experiential knowledge will gird your soul with perspective and courage to not only face your fears but to see them as less threatening going forward. You recognize that you are no longer at risk in that way. You realize that you are no longer vulnerable in that specific way because you have conquered that particular challenge. Out of all the possible threats that your blessedly smart human brain can imagine, you have taken that specific one and stripped it of its power over you. You have turned uncertainty into certainty.

Anxiety is essentially our body's reaction to the unknown. So learn more things. About yourself and the world around you. It will arm you with courage and perspective.

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