No one is an island... For millions of years, mammals have been safe together. So safety increases with strong connections. No part of our planet can live without the ecosystem around it… in reality we have been reliant on interconnections for life since life began. So it is our birth-right that we are interconnected and naturally, the more disconnected we are the more trouble it causes us.
Do you have clarity about the connections in your life that fuel, energise and sooth you? Are they consciously present in the world around you and treated with respect and value in your mind?
Take your time to find, acknowledge and make space for the connections that support, fulfil, and maintain your body, mind and soul.
From basic to complex, connections fill your life. Your connection with everything in your life has an impact on you, to try to summarise some of the key ones here:
- your breath;
- the substances you fuel your body with;
- your home and family;
- your clan;
- your community;
- your work;
- how you spend your time;
- the air and physical environment around you;
- your loves – whatever they may be
Give your connections due time and consideration. Right here and now, rather than rushing onwards, just breathe and take a moment to connect with something that is supporting you. Perhaps start with the oxygen in your lungs or the floor under your feet, both are holding you tenderly giving you just what you need right now.
Most of the other connections are more complex, and the gifts that evolution have given us to respond to disconnection is incredibly worthy of your time and attention. We will start here by disentangling it from the evolutionary mechanism guiding our anxiety and fear responses.
We can disentangle first by separating the key concepts of fear, anxiety and worry - holding in mind these definitions (there is no clear agreement on these terms across the field - isn’t that unhelpful! The common uses are vague and overlapping so we get specific and clear here to prevent going round in circles).
Fear - An external threat activates the safety system inside your body, which triggers a biophysiological response. This may or may not be accompanied by a conscious experience of fear.
Anxiety - The safety system in your body is responding to feelings inside us which have been triggered by something – external or internal, but without an immediate and obvious threat present in the world.
Worry – thoughts in your mind.
The latter two summarised brilliantly by Jon Frederickson
“Anxiety is not a thought in the mind. Anxiety is biophysiological pattern of discharge in the body mediated by the somatic and autonomic nervous systems.
So do not focus on thoughts in your head, focus on anxiety symptoms in your body.”
Panic is not anxiety.
Fear and anxiety both activate the same emotional system - the autonomic and somatic nervous systems to help us to response to important stuff happening in our world - but the trigger is different in each case - outside threat and feelings inside associated with danger.
Both anxiety and fear are responding to a threat with flight or freeze responses. These are both brilliant responses to danger
1) run away
2) hide / stay still so you can’t be seen.
In a world where predators are other animals trying to eat us – these mechanisms evolved to protect us very effectively, our ancestors survived when their safety systems worked quickly and without the need for thinking and planning.
Panic is very different. Imagine a baby chick dealing with a threat - it would run away or stay very still. A brilliant way to stay alive when a fox is around.
Now the same baby chick loses connection with mother hen. Running away or staying still are the opposite of helpful. The chick would lose mum by running away quickly and would not be found by being quiet. Instead, the brilliant response of panic shows up. Rush around frantically and make a lot of noise, boom - mother hen finds chick, some moments of reunion and repair, then back to the business of clucking around looking for food.
Panic is not anxiety.
It is a frantic response to lost connection.
Panic is part of the connection emotional system. We connect to survive and thrive in our clan, in our interconnected world; we panic when losses may occur; and we grieve when losses are permanent. What do we do to ensure we stay connected to what or who we love? We panic frantically when it looks very likely that we might lose them, and we panic when we have lost them just in case we bring them back or learn important lessons so we don’t make the same mistakes again.
I experienced this first hand when I lost my sister in law. I worked through around six weeks of intense panicking and around 18 months of ever decreasing panicking. And when I say ‘worked through’, it is important to share how physical it was, not just emotional. I experienced panic very physically in my body, and the grief was like an indigestible brick with sharp spikey edges, initially impossible to pass. When it did eventually start passing in waves, it came up and out so painfully – the interconnection of physical and emotional pain was impossible to separate.
With inherited health problems rife in my family, I needed to learn as much as I could to prevent losing my husband; he lost his sister when she was aged just 31 years, and his mother at 54 years. Unconsciously driven at the time, but knowing what I know now, this is a brilliant response of my sensitive emotional systems.
Some might consider the panic I experienced to be denial… waking as I did each morning for weeks on end, literally and unconsciously driven to plan what we needed to do differently, as if she was still alive to save with these different actions. And at the time, it was really painful and it felt torturous. But it is so similar in function to the chick frantically revisiting where it last saw mum.
Panic is a neon sign pointing to what we love.
Showing us how important it is to protect our loves,
as well as find, recover, repair, and learn.
What we love outside us and, very essentially, inside us...
“I loved her hugs and her laugh.
I want warm hugs and belly laughing in my life.”
The intense, painful emotional processing helped me thoroughly work through the practicalities of the complex situation. It was hard for those around me, they tried to stop me going over the same ground; and it was hard for me, it felt like madness to be revisiting mistakes, working through options, imagining alternative routes and outcomes. But I stayed with it, listening and honouring the power of these emotional experiences. Surrendering to them as best I could, as well as inevitably fighting them along the way too. Again and again, it took me to love, to connection and of course, as the panic subsided, to grief. The outcome of this phase was essential in enabling me to learn what I can from losing her, so I can protect my family to the best of my ability.
Grief comes when panic doesn’t bring back our loved one. Grief for the outside loss – her presence in all it’s glory and challenges - and for the inside loss – what she gave me, how our connection made me feel inside me. Grief comes and flows when we can feel both and can recognise that while we can honour the loss of her as a person, we can allow the inside loss to be listened to, honoured. We know that tears of grief actually readies us for new opportunities for connection. In my case, the desire for new opportunities for bear hugs and belly laughing; the panic and grief brought me to essential, vital realisations of what “I cannot live well without ” and what I can let go of.
In addition, the unique lessons learnt, seeing the moments when a practical adjustment might have led to alternative outcomes, where it was out of our hands and we have to let go. It was panic that put the spotlight on some meaningful places. In doing so, we could face what needed working through, what we needed outside advice about, and what we needed to make space for guilt, anger, rage and deep deep grief.
Six months later, my husband was rushed into hospital in need of unexpected major heart surgery, and I could not have been more grateful for the panic induced conversations we had had, and the lessons we had learnt together. An opportunity we never wanted to experience but one that in some ways, because we followed the panic, we were more ready for than ever.
Of course, panic can lie to us and the challenge we have is to use the energy it provides to get to the crux of the matter. Getting caught in worry and anxiety, can take us round in circles. An example from my experience was the outcomes of our discussions about how stoic and cheerful my husbands family can be in the face of challenge and medical ones especially. A capability that comes with a lifetime of health problems and years in Great Ormond Street Hospital for his sister as a child. Panic kept taking me to this spot which I will share in words - ‘if she didn’t have such a high pain threshold and cheerful outward appearance - would there have been important moments when the doctors could have treated her differently’? The panic experience was more of a bodily experience - a memory of her smiling when she was last conscious and me being unable to breathe with terror about the loss. Many tears were shed with these memories, and the brick of grief both grew and dissolved somewhat unpredictably. By valuing what the panic was highlighting, I gave my neural networks the opportunity to learn that this is important for us, not meaningless. By making it explicit and known, it becomes possible to direct our mind, and direct our life. So by example, in my case:
- I can calm a generalised worry response about whether my family members are ill or more ill than they seem on the surface.
- I can activate a response in the right circumstances, in the right way. So when a serious health problem occurred I could encourage a serious response rather than a stoical one.
- I can explicitly tell the medical staff on the ward to do their best to look past the smiles and feel confident that this is a valuable thing to do!
This was only possible because I made space for my emotional experience, rather than blocking or constraining it. It doesn’t mean I learn to control my feelings or the world, but I have more conscious direction of my part in it. Learning and growing, connected to the full power of my emotional systems - with care, connection, curiosity, assertiveness, play, guided by feeling good and safety. There will be mistakes and failures, disconnection and losses, and by listening to the panic these can be repaired when possible - or grieved. With curiosity about what is at the root of the panic - asking “what loss or what disconnection is coming or has occurred?” And what do I need to learn, so I can live freely, rambunctiously, and reconnect. I can’t control my life, and I can direct my life. My emotional systems have evolved over hundreds of millions of years to help guide us so that we can learn and, as much as possible, live without regrets.
This blog post is taken from Anxiety - Find your Freedom - our 5 step online course and my new book coming soon.