How to Live When Your Mind Is Governed by Fear

Psychiatrist and habit change specialist Dr. Jud Brewer explains how anxiety masquerades as helpful

I was recently on the phone with my friend Kate, who had just returned from a summer road trip with her kids. She’s one of those ultra-responsible types who is up on evolving coronavirus precautions and social distancing guidelines (full disclosure: She’s also an editor at Elemental). As a way to salvage joy amid the wreckage of 2020, she opted to drive her sons to a few remote spots in Montana and Wyoming. They were gone for two weeks, and upon return, Kate sounded elated, relaxed, and thrilled with the decision to pull up stakes from the normal routines of daily life and go deep into nature. “I cannot believe,” she told me, “that I almost didn’t do it.”

Were this any other year, such a trip would have been seen as a no-brainer, a guaranteed source of mom points and memories. Yet because it’s 2020, and because Covid-19 dominates all aspects of life, Kate almost canceled — not because of safety (she ensured everyone’s safety) but because of fear and anxiety.

“Even as I knew in my logical brain that the trip made sense and would be hugely beneficial, I kept doubting myself in a way that I couldn’t shake,” she told me. No matter that Kate knew she’d be exiting more populated California for less populated areas, wearing masks in public settings, spending most of her time in the wilderness, and traveling by car — a sneaking suspicion kept telling her she wasn’t “supposed” to do this. In fact, fear had sent its close cousin, anxiety, to tail Kate like an unmarked police car as she plotted her journey — staying just out of sight but coming into view every now and then to let its presence be known.

Damn you, anxiety — threatening to ruin even the most wholesome of family trips!

Fear is an innate survival mechanism, set up to help us learn what is dangerous and how to avoid it. It is the oldest survival mechanism known in science. Anxiety, on the other hand, is an anti-survival mechanism. Not only does it contribute to chronic health problems, but it makes us feel bad right now. And ironically, it thwarts learning.

Remember the last time you had to memorize some facts for a presentation yet were too anxious so it was harder to get them to stick in your head? As American author Arthur Somers Roche put it, “Anxiety is a thin stream of fear trickling through the mind. If encouraged, it cuts a channel into which all other thoughts are drained.” When it comes to surviving a meeting, planning a family vacation, or saving for retirement, anxiety masquerades as a promise to help — but in actuality, it turns your thinking brain to mush.

In a pandemic, the presence of daily uncertainty directly drives anxiety, which leads us to reevaluate everything from going to the grocery store to going on vacation to sending our kids to school (is it safe?!). Right now, these are the daily inevitabilities that come with living in uncertain times. So how do we learn to respond and find the necessary balance between fear (helpful survival mechanism) and anxiety (unhelpful “un-survival” mechanism)?

Fear is an innate survival mechanism, set up to help us learn what is dangerous and how to avoid it. It is the oldest survival mechanism known in science. Anxiety, on the other hand, is an anti-survival mechanism.

Stay with me here.

I just finished reading Michelle Obama’s book Becoming. In it, she describes going to Iowa during the 2008 presidential primaries. Back then, Iowa was 91.3% white and 2.9% Black. Michelle Obama, of course, is 100% black. She had no idea what to expect. Were the people of Iowa going to accept her (and her husband) as viable candidates to lead the country? Obama could have allowed her worry about the future (which is basically the definition of anxiety) to shut her down, avoiding all but critical events (in Iowa and beyond) to protect herself emotionally. Yet, she opted for something quite different, something that teaches us all about how to work with our minds during times of uncertainty in the age of anxiety.

What did Michelle Obama do to tame her anxious mind?

She went into living rooms all over Iowa and introduced herself. She told her story of growing up without money or privilege on the South Side of Chicago, raised by a stay-at-home mom and city employee dad. Over and over, when she threw caution to the wind and approached the caucus gatherings, she learned that (apart from skin color), the people were just like her: interested, kind, and concerned about their futures. Basically, they were normal. The voices in Obama’s head were far more worrisome than the good people of Iowa. She was able to work with her mind — and the rest, as we know, is history.

Think of your mind this way: It’s like the government.

Its congress gets elected based on the relevant issues of the day. For most of us in this moment of 2020, the “anxiety party” has swept both the house and senate, as well as the presidency. With all of these loud voices in our head, frantically worrying about what might happen, we can easily get swept in two directions: 1) panicking and simply following whatever others on social media are proclaiming from moment to moment or 2) feeling overwhelmed and shutting down. This is how emotion and behavior interact in human beings: an abundance of anxiety drives panic and/or forces our overloaded prefrontal cortex (the thinking and planning part of our brain) to shut down.

At times like these (perhaps without realizing it), we allow the anxiety voices to call the shots. They can basically tell us anything and blindly, and we follow. This is where herd mentality comes in: When we’re in the panic zone, our blinders are on, so we can’t see beyond what is right in front of us. And if everyone else is running in a certain direction, the only thing our brain knows to do is run with the herd.

The mental congresspeople in our minds can whip up fear and frenzy by stoking our fears about the future. If we can step back and recognize them for what they are — voices in our heads trying to get us to do stuff — we then can determine if they are really pointing to danger or simply pushing our panic button. When we are able to pause, it gives us a moment to find the mental remote control and turn down the volume on the unhelpful noise.

When it comes to surviving a meeting, planning a family vacation, or saving for retirement, anxiety masquerades as a promise to help — but in actuality, it turns your thinking brain to mush.

As a psychiatrist who specializes in anxiety, this is what I teach my patients who come to my clinic debilitated by panic and worry — especially now. A study in the U.S. in April 2020 found that 13.6% of respondents reported feeling severe psychological distress. That’s a whopping 250% increase compared with 2018 when only 3.9% reported this level of woe.

Basically, my job is to help patients understand that they have a government in their heads. They give these noisy voices power by listening to them and acting out their commands, or they can use their energy to stop doing this. I often teach patients to name these voices so they can more easily recognize them when they speak up, make demands, or cause alarm. It may sound wild, but it works. Patients consider this a creative, therapeutic exercise — and they come up with names like “Judgmental Judy,” “Anxious Anne,” and “Worried Wanda.”

Naming the anxiety voice allows them to step back and notice the voice for what it is: a voice (“Oh, that’s Anxious Anne going on again about my upcoming deadline”). This evokes a principle from quantum physics called the observer effect in which the act of observing a phenomenon changes the phenomenon. By observing a voice or a thought in your head, by definition, you are less identified with it. Author Dan Millman put this nicely: “You don’t have to control your thoughts; you just have to stop letting them control you.”

With this mental distancing at work, thinking brains can come back online, and patients can once again reason through the arguments before them — to see which ones make sense and which ones are based in anxiety and panic. As they learn to stop feeding the anxiety and worry voices and to support the calm and sensible ones, they are effectively casting a vote for more of the latter. They are taking steps to elect a new mental congress, one that can help them live and work with uncertainty.

So instead of blindly following those anxious voices in your head, see if you can throw caution to the wind (as Michelle Obama did) and approach this moment with willingness, instead of fear. See if you can begin to name all of those congresspeople in your mind and decide who you want to keep voting for — and who is full of bluster and ready to be voted out.

Addiction Psychiatrist. Neuroscientist. Habit Change Expert. Brown U. professor. Founder of MindSciences. Author: Unwinding Anxiety. @judbrewer

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