In my practice, the most common ‘ailment’ I see is anxiety. If you read this blog regularly, you’ll be aware of my views on anxiety as a mental disorder: that it isn’t one. Instead, it’s a normal, human system that has gone wrong. In fact, a lot of the time it hasn’t even gone wrong, we just spend far too much time paying attention to it.
I know I’ve written about anxiety before, but today I want to do a brief refresher and add an extra element – the feeling of guilt. Many of my clients combine their anxiety with regular feelings of guilt, leading to a debilitating cycle, where anxiety leads to avoidance, which leads to guilt, which leads to anxiety. On discussion with friends, it appears that this is pretty common – many people get stuck in the guilt/anxiety cycle.
So, first, let’s do a brief anxiety refresher. As humans, we evolved to survive in a hostile environment (i.e., with things trying to eat us), and a part of our ability to do so comes from a mechanism in our brain housed in the limbic system (i.e., the midbrain). Within the limbic system is an apparatus sometimes referred to as the ‘fear centre’. Housed primarily in a brain structure called the amygdala, this system responds to perceived threats by sending out a strong warning signal (so that we’ll pay attention to the threat and modify our behaviour by running away) which we call anxiety. It feels ‘bad’ because it’s supposed to; if it didn’t feel unpleasant, it probably wouldn’t get our attention, and we wouldn’t be able to get away from predators. It also goes off in situations where the danger is ambiguous. As far as this system is concerned, it’s safer to activate when there is no real danger (just in case there is), than not to go off when there is (we call this a false-positive system). It’s also important to understand that we’ve inherited a highly refined version of the ‘fear centre’; our ancestors, by definition, were the ones who survived long enough to pass on their genes, allowing us to inherit their ‘fear centre’.
We need to remember that this system is there for a reason: for a large proportion of our evolution, it kept us alive – and was, in fact, pivotal to our survival as a species. But brain evolution hasn’t kept pace with societal and technological progress (it can’t – because it takes at a bare minimum, thousands of years for evolutionary change to occur), meaning that the fear system, although still useful for getting us out of the way of an oncoming car, isn’t so effective in the modern world. Once upon a time, our environment was relatively simple: small tribes, regular hunting, crop cycles, predictable predators. Our modern world, in contrast, is highly abstract. Danger comes in the form of subjectives, like overdue bills, rather than simple objectives, like running away from a bear. Consequently, our fear system is often activated inappropriately and, because the resultant feeling (anxiety) feels unpleasant, we tend to pay a lot of attention to it. Instead of treating anxiety for what it is: activation of a survival system, we react as if we were in real danger, and pay a lot of attention to the feeling. Over time, the brain adapts our attentional focus systems, so that we’re constantly on the look out for danger, and our fear system becomes extremely jumpy, reacting to pretty much everything. This is when anxiety becomes pathological.
For most of us, anxiety never reaches the stage of paralysis. We can continue to function (mostly) even though we feel bad. But most of us do so by learning to avoid (to a greater or lesser degree) the things that activate the survival system. Although this sort of works, it’s a poor solution overall. Sure, we manage to avoid feeling crap some of the time, but we do so at the expense of things that we either need to do, or want to do. And hey presto, we can now bring in guilt.
Quick sidestep. I’ve said this before, but it really needs repeating: emotions are not real things, they are outputs from brain modules. They ‘feel’ so important because our brains evolved to make them ‘feel’ that way (i.e., so we would pay attention and modify our behaviours). Most emotions are thoroughly out of date; they do not reflect reality, and listening to them does us more harm than good. We do not need to “get in touch with our feelings”, they are not ‘special’, they are not ‘meaningful’, they are not ‘trustworthy’, and they do not have ‘wisdom’. They are outputs that used to help us stay alive. That’s it. So, just because you ‘feel’ a certain way does not mean you have to act on it.
OK, back to guilt. Guilt is a relatively complex human emotion tied to our notions of ‘should’. Humans tend to feel guilty when we’ve behaved (or failed to behave) in a way that we ‘should’. Most of these ‘shoulds’ are the result of societal programming, that we internalise as rules. When one of these rules is broken, we feel that something is wrong, and if we can identify what we did or didn’t do that violated the rule, we feel guilty. Because, in the modern world, so much of what we get anxious about is related to things we are supposed to do (e.g., around work, financial commitments, or relationships), it’s very easy for us to start avoiding the things that result in feelings of anxiety, feeding feelings of guilt. Thus, sadly, for many people, motivation to act comes not from internal values but, instead, from the end point of the anxiety/guilt cycle: we get anxious and avoid something, we then start to feel guilty and eventually take action to reduce the guilt (but that action is usually short-lived because it evokes anxiety!). Once we get stuck in guilt, we start to self-recriminate, and then we get stuck in the thought loop that reinforces how crap we are, how weak, how helpless.
OK – anxiety and guilt are related, and many of us are crippled by this relationship. So what can we do to break this cycle? First, we need to be aware of what’s going on. Look at the situations you’re avoiding because you’re afraid of feeling anxious. Maybe it’s starting a large project, doing your taxes, talking to your boss, being honest with a friend or partner, or saying no. Start by practising, just a little bit, exposing yourself to situations in which you feel uncomfortable, even though you’re aware that it won’t feel pleasant. Practise getting used to feeling uncomfortable, and reminding yourself that the feeling isn’t important (even though it feels that way), it’s just activity from a module in your brain. This won’t make the feeling go away, but it will teach you that you can act independently of a feeling, even though it’s unpleasant. It helps to think about emotional input as untrustworthy information. It feels ‘right’ and it’s highly tempting, but most of the time, the information isn’t trustworthy: it doesn’t have any bearing on what’s really going on.
Next, notice the things that are most likely to result in feelings of guilt. Ask yourself why you’re feeling guilty. Is it really important, or is it just because that’s the way things are ‘supposed’ to be? If the action you need to take is actually important to you (i.e., it has some personal value or meaning), then it might be worth exposing yourself to a bit of discomfort (in the short-term) in order to do something that results in longer-term feelings of accomplishment or satisfaction.
Now start to combine these two ideas. You’ll notice that, even though you still feel anxious about things, you’ll probably find it’s a little easier to talk yourself into doing them. Tell yourself that you might feel shit, but that doesn’t mean that you’re incapable. Start looking for reasons to do things (even though it might be uncomfortable), rather than reasons not to. Amazingly, you’ll also feel less guilt, because there’s a lot less to feel guilty about.
Last, stop for a minute, take a breath and look around you. Notice the world, your body, and the associated thoughts and feelings. Recognise that you’re paying too much attention to your thoughts and feelings and, just for a moment, bring your attention back to here and now. Notice the difference when, even for an instant, you’re no longer stuck in your head or agonising over your feelings.
Anxiety and guilt are part of being human – but they don’t have to define ourselves or our actions. You’ll never be able to stop feeling anxious or guilty, but by understanding what’s going on, and taking appropriate action, it doesn’t need to matter.