by Fiona Robertson
Human beings, along with many other species, exhibit a basic physiological response to threat, attack, or danger: fight, flight, or freeze. Intrinsic to our survival, this mechanism is hard-wired into us. Once triggered, our nervous systems gear up to deal with the threat; our hearts pound, our breathing shallows, our muscles prepare for action. If we really are in a life-threatening situation, this automatic response is absolutely necessary. In that highly aroused state, people sometimes display amazing feats of courage, or survive against all the odds.
For many of us, however, the fight, flight or freeze mechanism seems to have gone awry. We experience anxiety, fear, panic, or even terror, in situations that are not life-threatening. Some of us may react to perceived threats with fight, rather than flight or freeze. We are quick to anger or rage, not realizing initially that fear lies underneath. There are a multitude of circumstances — from taking exams and speaking in public, to crossing bridges or eating certain foods — in which we may experience anxiety or fear. There are, likewise, a multitude of objects that we can be afraid of, from spiders and snakes to buttons and colors. Whatever the focus of our anxiety, anger, or fear, however, there is a simple presumption that we usually overlook; we presume that there is something out there (the object) that is threatening, endangering, or attacking me in here (the subject).
The Anxiety Inquiry looks for the seemingly external threat, danger, or attack as well as the internal sense of self that is threatened, endangered, or attacked. Object and subject arise together, just as all opposites do. Without a threatening object out there, it’s impossible to feel threatened in here. Without an endangered subject in here, it’s impossible perceive a danger out there.
The Anxiety Inquiry cuts to the chase. By delving straight into the perceived threat, danger, or attack, and examining it closely, we discover that it is not real. By looking directly to see if there is a self here that is threatened, endangered, or under attack, we find that there isn’t one. In the process of looking, we encounter everything that has contributed to our anxiety or fear, both consciously or unconsciously. Some common themes have begun to emerge. Under the debilitating anxiety or fear often lies a sense of protectiveness; we have been trying to protect ourselves, usually since childhood, from things or people that seemed overwhelming when we were small and vulnerable. Those of us who are prone to anxiety tend to feel an almost-constant sense of hyper-alertness or guardedness that makes it very difficult to relax. When we realize that there is nothing to guard against, no need for hyper-vigilance, our bodies are able to switch down a gear, to stand down. We no longer have to respond to every external stimulus as if it were a potential threat or attack.
Scott Kiloby, Colette Kelso and I developed the AI, and have worked with people on a variety of issues, including:
- Generalized anxiety
- Anger and rage
- Performance anxiety
- Social phobia
- Post-traumatic stress
- Health-related anxiety
- Specific fears and phobias (including spiders and snakes)
In every session, there has been a defusing, an unraveling of the fight, flight, freeze mechanism, and a relaxation. People are reporting lasting changes, and less reactivity around the activities or objects that were the focus for their anxiety, fear, or anger.
Contrary to what many people think, given my seemingly relaxed demeanor, I’ve frequently experienced anxiety, panic, and terror. I’ve had panic attacks during which I’ve been convinced that I was just about to die. I’ve become anxious at the thought of traveling, particularly in cars or planes. I’ve been frightened in crowded places; I’ve lain awake during the early hours rigid with terror; I’ve been alarmed by physical ailments. Just like anyone else who suffers from anxiety, I’ve been aware during these episodes that my fears are irrational and out of proportion, yet remained unable to control them. Over the years, I’ve tried all kinds of therapies and remedies, some of which have helped — a bit. Now, the long-held pattern is gradually relaxing.
If you’d like to try an Anxiety Inquiry session, get in touch (with me or one of the other Living Inquiry facilitators). We’d love to look with you.
*Pic David M. Goehring