Think of the last time you were anxious. Were you stressed about an upcoming social situation? A work presentation? A confrontation with a family member? Likely the anxiety was fueled by the “what if’s” about the situation. What if people don’t think I am interesting? What if I forget my talking points? What if my family member yells at me? It is not the unknown itself that is threatening, but all the “what if’s” we put into the unknown. The brain loves predictability, stability, and security. When we think about the future we want to know that things will be OK, that we will be safe, that we will be cared for.
If we take this back to our ancestors- fear about the unknown was critical for our survival. We needed to be alert to whether a lion might be waiting to sneak up on us. Without that healthy level of fear, we would leave ourselves open and vulnerable to attack. Luckily, most of us now don’t have to worry about being attacked by a lion but our brains have not totally caught up to this.
Anywhere there is an unknown, our brains have the tendency to insert a metaphorical lion.
Covid-19? Our new lions are the threats of isolation, lockdown, cancelled plans, or serious health issues. The start of a relationship? We perceive potential rejection or betrayal of trust. Political change? We’re triggered with the threat of loss and competing values. A work project? We insert the lion of failure, of not being good enough, of letting others down.
So how do we tame these lions? The first step is to be aware. Be aware when your brain starts putting lions into the unknown. Often our bodies know this happening before our brains do. Maybe there is a tightness in the chest, increased heart rate, or a sinking feeling in the stomach. These physical sensations are manifestations of our nervous system responding to a threat. Noticing these sensations is the first step to calming our anxiety.
Next, ground in the present. Anxiety lives in the future, in the unknown, in what might happen. It doesn’t live in the present. To combat anxiety, begin to ground your body and mind in the present moment. This can be done by engaging in mindful breathing, igniting the senses, and tuning into what are bodies are doing.
Lastly, challenge the thoughts. When you catch yourself perceiving a lion, ask “How likely is it that this lion is really there?” Is there evidence to suggest your thoughts and anxieties are valid? If the threat is real, then the anxiety might be warranted. But if the threat is made up in your mind, you can seek help to work through the anxiety and find safety from the lions.