To Be Safe or to Be Free?
Choosing Freedom Over Anxiety
To be safe or to be free? I often pose this question when talking about anxiety, worries, and fears. That’s because we really do have a choice to make between anxiety and freedom, and this question makes us think about what it is that we truly want.
Anxiety and the Posture of Fear
When we are anxious, so much of our time and energy is spent on avoiding risks and dangers. We often get caught up in the mindset that if we try hard enough, we can reduce our risks and thereby avoid our fears, but ultimately we end up feeling more afraid as we reinforce the concept that there is something to be afraid of. It’s a common, vicious cycle. We see this frequently when we work to lessen anxiety.
Think of it as a “posture of fear.” The more you “posture” that you are afraid, the more you feel afraid. It’s a bizarre contradiction: The more you try to make yourself safe, the more you actually feed the fear and anxiety. For instance, when someone with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) repeatedly checks their stove to ensure it is off, they still have some doubt that their mind tricked them.
It may be true that some of our anxiety behavior does lead to less risk. However, in many cases it leads to more emotional fear and hypervigilance, where you’re constantly on guard, highly alert to your surroundings. This stance might keep you “safer” in some ways, but how does it make you feel? Often people who are hypervigilant report feeling more tense, on edge, worried, and sometimes even panicky. Besides those feelings, being on guard requires a ton of energy and can lead to physical and emotional fatigue.
Being on guard also teaches us that we’re only safe because we’re on guard. As a result, we often mistakenly believe that it’s our vigilance (or what we call “safety behaviors”) that is keeping us out of harm’s way. This further reinforces the idea that life is very dangerous, that we must always be cautious to avoid bad things happening. In reality, much of the time we would have been safe regardless of our actions. In many cases, we make a superstitious connection between our hypervigilance and our safety. For example, people who have high-level anxiety often have incredible distress around uncertainty and get caught up in these types of superstitious beliefs about what will keep them safe. These attempts to reduce uncertainty not only fail miserably, they cause other damage in the meantime.
Avoiding Danger, Limiting Our Lives
When our focus is on staying safe, we tend to avoid perceived dangers. We become so protective that we begin to believe there is no way we could handle whatever it is we fear. Take social embarrassment, for example. Many of us fear being embarrassed, and we avoid situations that may lead to embarrassment. We may spend countless hours worrying about how to act or how we will be perceived, all to protect ourselves from embarrassment. There’s even a common expression about this fear: “I died from embarrassment!”
In reality, embarrassment is, well, embarrassing, but typically it is short-lived. In my experience both professionally and personally, we remember these incidents much more than anyone else does. AND the actual embarrassing moments we open ourselves up to are nowhere near as bad as we envisioned. Hence, the guarded behavior and the fear of being embarrassed is where 90% of the pain and anxiety lies. It is in the perception, not the actual outcome.
The trouble is, when we’re so intent on avoiding embarrassment, or whatever it is that we’re afraid of, we’re really limiting ourselves. We may hang back from trying new things or experiencing things we might really enjoy, and we never get to learn that we are resilient and have the ability to tolerate difficult outcomes. We never find out how well we would do if we were to face danger, and we don’t get to gain confidence in our ability to cope with whatever comes our way. The truth is, we often cope much better than we think we will!
Throwing Caution to the Wind
So this brings us back to the question of whether it’s better to be a bit safer or to be free from our anxiety and the consequences it brings. In anxiety therapy, we generally do not make our clients any safer or take away the inherent risks of living life. So how do we reduce anxiety?
The answer lies within each individual. This means taking the time to carefully consider whether you really want to be free from anxiety. Are you willing to let go of some safety if that’s what it takes to gain freedom from anxiety? Or is safety of utmost importance to you, even if it causes you to feel more anxious?
To truly live life with less anxiety, you need to be able to embrace the risks, sometimes actually throwing caution to the wind. Amazingly, by exposing ourselves to more risk and danger, we will often feel more free and at peace. Acting in this way is the exact opposite of hypervigilance — it’s seeking out risks!
Three Steps to Freedom
Anyone who truly wants to remove the distress of anxiety from their life must honestly examine and answer the question, Do I want to be safe or be free? If you decide on freedom, follow these three steps:
1. Identify the areas where you attempt to control certainty and are hypervigilant.
2. Practice consistently opening yourself up to risks in these areas.
3. Observe the outcome and the impact on your anxiety over time.
By following these steps, you will begin to earn your freedom from anxiety. We learn to tolerate and cope with uncertainty and danger through practice. As we practice taking risks, we no longer fear the uncertainty or react to it as much as we once did. And each time you face any anxiety or uncertainty in the future, you can ask yourself again, To be safe or to be free?
About the Author:
Ernest Schmidt, LCSW, is a Certified Cognitive Therapist and the founder of Palo Alto Therapy. As a results-oriented practice, Palo Alto Therapy stands apart by specializing in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) a method that more quickly and effectively brings about positive changes. Our counselors work closely with clients in a team effort to set goals and create specific plans to work past problems and realize happier, more fulfilled lives. Under their direct and personable approach, clients tend to achieve both short and long-term lifestyle adjustments without long-term counseling.
To learn more about Palo Alto Therapy visit www.PaloAltoTherapy.com or call to schedule an appointment at 650–461–9026.