Most people struggling with symptoms of anxiety aren’t really sure where it came from. They’re not sure why it’s happening because it makes no sense. Yet, in every case of anxiety that I have worked with, the symptoms originated in an event of extreme fear, either recent or long long ago, and then evolved into a recurring and debilitating pattern of chronic fear and helplessness. What began as a normal response to extenuating circumstances grew into a pervasive pattern completely separated from its initial context.
Anxiety is usually seen as an inappropriate response, an overreaction to stimuli that really shouldn’t be threatening. But the more I worked with people, the more a different picture began to emerge. Anxiety wasn’t so much a mistake of the mind as a previously adaptive response that had evolved into a debilitating reaction. What began as a survival response had developed into painful and detrimental emotional and psycho-emotional pattern.
Trauma, Immobility and the Origins of Anxiety
Could the symptoms of anxiety have their source in our innate biological response to danger and threat?
When faced with danger, we are wired with three instinctive responses: fight, flight or freeze. Sometimes the best response to danger is to “get the heck outta there.” Other times we need to stand up and defend ourselves. And there are times when in danger, there may be nothing we can do. The only option is to freeze and wait.
The freeze response appears in two forms. The first is exemplified by the well-known deer in the headlights response. A person freezes, not quite knowing what to do. Should they run, fight or hold still? Freezing often occurs before moving to fight or flight.
The other type if freeze response is entirely different. When we are threatened, in danger, or are being hurt, but are helpless to do anything about it, the body reacts with a type of last resort: immobility. If an animal is being attacked and has no hope of winning the fight, its only hope may be to play dead. Its entire body goes limp in the hope that the predator will cease its onslaught. When the predator lets up its guard, the animal could awaken from its trance and escape in a moment of chance. If not, the immobility response leaves the animal in an altered state which will lessen its pain should the predator proceed to have it for dinner.
When in danger yet helpless, we too turn to our own last resort. We fall into a type of stupor as the body goes limp. The name for it is tonic immobility, and it’s a physiological response to life-threatening situations adapted over the course of millions of years. The rational brain shuts down, leaving us in a state of paralysis. We are frozen in immobility while we wait for the threat to pass.
An event is traumatic when it completely overwhelms an individual’s ability to cope, causing a sense helplessness in which one fears serious harm, death or loss of sanity.
Such extreme circumstances evoke extreme reactions, and since our cognitive and emotional capacities are overwhelmed, we respond with our biological last resort: immobility.
A number of different types of events can be traumatic. Some may seem self-evident, such as rape. Others, such as a surgical procedure might surprise some by the traumatic effects they can have. Events typically associated with trauma are those such as:
• Natural disasters (tornados, floods, fires, earthquakes)
• Physical or sexual abuse
• Accidents (falls, automobile accidents)
• Serious illness
• Medical and surgical procedures
These types of significant emotional experiences actually alter a person’s neurophysiology. They are a type of powerful learning experience in which danger and threat can become paired with the immobility response. The person has become wired to automatically respond to danger and fear with a state of helplessness.
The immobility response may save a person’s life, but after a traumatic experience, it can become a default response to various stimuli and situations. In essence, when unresolved, it overgeneralizes and comes to be applied to situations in which it is detrimental. What’s more is that when this response occurs inappropriately, it can be quite disturbing.
A neurophysiological response of immobility in situations where action is warranted or in situations that are not threatening can be terrifying.
Anxiety is often defined as fear of fear. The argument goes that in the case of anxiety, a person becomes afraid of their own physiological fear response, and thus, stuck in a negative feedback loop. The more they fear their fear, the more they are afraid.
But in working with individual’s struggling with anxiety, I have found something else.
After a traumatic experience (danger + helplessness) which evoked tonic immobility, a person can begin to re-experience that same state of immobility in other circumstances. When it occurs, they know it is inappropriate and may have negative consequences, and so, unable to stop the immobility response, they become afraid of it. Their body responds to stimuli with immobility while their mind responds to the immobility with fear. They panic, helpless with regard to their own immobility. Because it has occurred they expect that it will occur again. They imagine it occurring in the future, believe it will, and since they know it’s inappropriate and self-defeating, they fear the anticipated and inevitable reaction.
The Anxiety Feedback Loop
1. Immobility response: A traumatic experience and appropriate immobility response
2. Immobility response in new situations: New experiences evoke an inappropriate immobility response
3. Fear of the response: The person becomes afraid of the response as it occurs
4. Shame about the response: The person becomes ashamed of the response after it occurs
5. Future projection: They imagine it occurring in the future in situations where it is inappropriate and fear those situations
6. Avoidance: They feel the need to avoid those situations and the feelings they evoke.
If anxiety is fear of fear, it’s an inappropriate fear, since fear is a fact of human life. But if anxiety instead is fear of the immobility response occurring in situations where it’s not appropriate, it’s a very valid fear. Would you want to respond with sudden paralysis and helplessness when driving on the highway, shopping for groceries or when talking to someone you’re attracted to?
In the above outline, what began as an immobility response evolves into something very different. The immobility evokes fear about and shame of that response. The person ends up in a battle with himself and stuck in a vicious cycle. What was immobility has now become a collage of fear, helplessness and shame, each feeding the other and sending things spiraling out of control.
Breaking the Anxiety Cycle
People have a need to understand and make sense out of their experience. When locked in this cycle, a person is often mystified as to what is going on. Confusion adds to the fear and shame as they try unsuccessfully to interpret the complexity of their experience. To break the cycle, they must first understand what has been occurring and why.
Once we demystify the cycle and elucidate how their own natural responses to the state of immobility have been feeding the pattern, they can learn new responses. With the right techniques, we can retrain the body to respond to danger and threat in more effective ways. People can wake up from the immobility trance. They can learn to replace automatic immobility with ability, and thus, regain their sense of power and spirit.