Anxiety As Memory

Anxiety As Memory


I remember not being able to sleep as a little kid. I was anxious. I didn’t know the word for it back then. Just felt like there was a lizard crawling around in my stomach. I’d grab my pillow and hold it close. By some strange grace I realized back then that worrying about not being able to sleep just made it worse. I taught myself not to worry about being anxious.

Which solved half the problem. The other half was whatever was causing the sleeplessness, which took me another five decades to figure out. That early conditioning means that I’m still wired to default to anxiety when I get triggered. But today I catch myself going down that snake pit earlier and can usually climb back out before paralysis sets in.

Anxiety is the number one presenting problem in my practice these days. What is it? How do we deal with it? First, let’s be clear. It has no upside as far as I can see. Unless it becomes conscious and then it may be used as a signal that we need more support.

Unconscious anxiety, on the other hand, is a vampire that sucks life energy without delivering any benefits in return. It is the Great Depleter. It is always a substitute for taking action on a problem. We don’t take action because we subconsciously believe we are helpless. So instead we worry.  Which makes us believe that we’re doing something about the problem. The truth is that we’re overwhelmed by life and we’re convinced (subconsciously) that we’re not up to the battle.

The political and social elite are okay with us being anxious. Keep the hoi polloi distracted by fake news—the threat of war in the Middle East, the latest virus, murders, drugs, etc.  Fox News, along with most other media outlets, is funded and operated by the elite. Pretty much all news outlets on the left and the right trade in apocalyptic anxiety. And while we’re battening down the hatches, making our worlds smaller and smaller, the actual crisis of political corruption, democratic failure, the elite’s involvement in the sex trade, and unconscionable wealth accumulation, go undetected and unchallenged. Ever consider the evening news as a form of social control?

Our amygdalas (the walnut sized gland in our brain that produces hormones warning us to bolt, square off, or collapse—and a few other things) are working overtime. Which is evolutionarily very useful when there is a water buffalo charging us. But 98% of the time in modern, Western culture, the water buffalo are all fenced in and producing pretty good yogurt these days. What makes us anxious belongs mostly to the past, not what’s happening in the present.

We’ve already been set up to believe that we’re about to be stampeded because once we had to contend with real threats to our survival. These threats are known as trauma. When you think about it, we don’t need all that much as humans to have a regulated nervous system.  We need to held close as babies and be attuned to (love); we need adequate shelter; we need to be fed; we need know deeply that we are wanted, that we belong here in this body on this planet; we need not be used instrumentally as things (sexual abuse), we need to be protected from harm (physical abuse); we need to know that our desires may be met at least some of the time (as in not humiliated for having them). We need all of this from those who brought us into the world and those who support for the first years of life.

Not a big ask, you would think. Nature has equipped us, after all, with love hormones (oxytocin) and a natural capacity to bond with our offspring. But hurt people hurt people. Intergenerational trauma gets passed down the line.  We’re the repositories of all the violence, neglect, and lovelessness. This trauma is rampant and pervasive. Very few escape it. When we’re hurt by those who are supposed to love us, our most effective defence against the big, old, scary world is taken away.

We’re on our own, before we’re ready to be on our own. The result is…

Anxiety. Too much responsibility, too soon, too often.

A belief (a premature, but intelligent, conclusion about reality) gets formed: Life Is Too Much! Along with this one come a few others: “I Am Powerless!” “I Am Helpless”, “Something Is Terribly Wrong!” “I Am Wrong!” “It’s My Fault!”  You can perhaps see how it is that when Fox News delivers their nightly dish of apocalyptic trash, it fits hand in glove with these unconscious beliefs. The announcers are confirming what we already “know” to be true. We’re screwed and there’s nothing to be done about it. Or there is the pervasive misanthropic conclusion (especially in the environmental movement) that Earth would be better off without humans, so depraved, so despicable, so degenerate are we.

Jeezus…where does this come from? (Not from him I can assure you. Apocalypse means “a revealing” and for Jesus what was being revealed was injustice, the domination of the elite over the vulnerable. The story goes that he exposed this darkness by his light shining in the dark, but that no, the darkness will not prevail, because G_d not Caesar, is running the show). My hunch is that at the root of misanthropy is an early, pervasive experience of cruelty at the hands of the person who is in charge of caring for us.

We’re wired by trauma to interpret occasions of stress as the end of the world. These stressful situations (triggers) cause what I call Leaks. Our personality is structured in large part to make sure that we never have to feel those early, unbearable feelings that formed the Core Unconscious Beliefs (CUBs) that I mentioned above.

But when something stresses us deeply enough (trigger) there’s a breach in the bulwark of our personality, a leak. What threatens to be exposed are those CUBs I mentioned above and all the feelings associated with them. That’s when anxiety bites us in the ass, grabs us by the bowels, or neck or heart, or name your favourite bodily location. Hips in my case. Remember, the whole point of our personality structure (ego) is to defend against those feelings and beliefs. Our tightening up is an attempt to repair the breach before the Flood overwhelms us. That tightening is a symptom of anxiety, of it all being too much to handle. If there’s a full breach, we are carried away like so much flotsam into a waiting ocean of really bad feelings that are always a memory of what was done to us, and not done. Anxiety signals that something is threatening to break through our defences.

Anxiety is a hydra-like, a many-headed beast, taking many forms depending on how we took refuge from a hostile reality. Here’s a few of our favourites:

The Big Makeover 

Some of us get very, very busy, trying to change ourselves , or others, or both, in a futile attempt to be safe. I demand that you be like this for me. You mustn’t do this or say that. You must do it this way, believe what I believe, value what I value. We must be one. I must make you over.  Or, I must improve, be better, be more, be kinder, be stronger, be more charming, to feel safe. Busy as a bee in a bottle, we buzz around looking for our next project. When I try to change you, I effectively remove you from the equation because you are there merely to serve my need for unity. When I try to change me, I effectively remove myself from the equation because the one thing I must not be is me—because that’s who was rejected and humiliated in the first place.

We cannot, will not, accept reality as it is. Because, as mentioned above, Reality is too much to bear. (Not true, it’s a memory, always a memory, but we don’t know it until we know it).


Some become obsessive, trying to gain absolute control over the world and their feelings by making the world they have to contend with smaller and smaller. We immobilize ourselves and the world by reducing reality to a part that we hope we can control, but we even fail at this. But one can never be sure…

Erect a Wall: Some build a wall and climb in behind it in an attempt to eliminate all others who are a threat to the fantasy nirvana of their own creation. Behind that wall we are quite often self-righteous and judgmental of a fucked up world that we alone were astute enough to exit.

Spirituality: Some escape upward into the spiritual realms, from whence they came. Better there than here by a long shot, we tell ourselves. There is a flight to unity with That. But incarnation means that there is work to be done here and now in this world. There is a difference between freedom and escape.

Build an Empire: Some escape into the pursuit of material wealth, which is held up by the financial industry as the key to absolute security. Have enough to retire on, your problems, along with the human predicament will be solved.

Have Another Shot: And some escape into addiction, choose your poison.

When all of these attempts to quell anxiety fail, as fail they will, depression awaits. We land with a thud. We become identified with the early feelings and beliefs that were formed in response to Failures of Love. We don’t have feelings. They now have us. There is no way out. There is no point to it all. Self-hatred is exposed. Nothing to be done. Collapse. This is what we were warding off with anxiety, with busyness, with obsession, with the wall, with the spiritual by-passing, with addiction. We are good and truly fucked. Or so we tell ourselves.

What now?

As my mentor, Andrew Feldmar, says, at this point the most important thing now is to make sure that you find the right people to support you. Or stay away from the wrong people. By which he means psychiatrists. (I know, by the way, very compassionate and skillful psychiatrists). What he is referring to is the entire psychiatric/psychopharmaceutical/diagnose-driven/third party insurance quagmire which is quick with the diagnosis (what R.D. Laing called “denigration by diagnosis”). There is an assumption that you have a “mental illness” (there is no such thing) which is caused by genetic deficiencies or congenital abnormalities. It’s within you, you are told.  Under the guise of de-stigmatizing “mental illness” (it’s just like catching a virus and who can be blamed for catching a virus?), the hard and sober truth that we were hurt by those who were supposed to love us is covered up. A pill holds the promise of a cure, but healing is not “cure”, it takes as long as it takes, and it’s always about healing relationship.  Ain’t no cure for love, as the song says.

(What’s called “mental illness” is actually what Thomas Szasz called “problems in living”. And these problems in living are not generated by some internal defect, but rather by somebody doing something to somebody else that they shouldn’t have done, or by not doing what should have been done. If one is born with say, a brain injury, then it is physical in nature, and should be treated as such.)

But if you can find the right person who will let you be depressed (while being ever on the side of life), chances are good that you’ll be able to get to the root of both the anxiety and the depression. Which is trauma. The depression is a dropping down, down, down into the mud of reality, your reality.  In this field of mud there is gold. It is the gold of realizing that you can feel those feelings now and survive, in a way you couldn’t then. It’s the gold of breaking through the denial, the gold of allowing sorrow to drive you deep enough until you know in your bones that all of those negative beliefs about yourself and reality are not your own. They never were. You are not those beliefs. You are not those feelings. You see through them to the beautiful and radiant soul who, under different circumstances, with different people, would have been cherished and delighted in. Your friends become those who will join you in this practice. You will leave behind anyone who treats you poorly. The torture is over. No more enduring. You are free to live according to your desires, relating to any and all, who treat you with respect and dignity.

Life is not too much. Once it was, when it shouldn’t have been. But it was never your fault. Life is what it is and once we are able to relax,  we might discover that we are being lived by a force, an intelligence, a source of living water that replenishes us for life and is indeed carrying us. We can learn to lean into That and enjoy the ride.

Live Your Own Life Course

Bruce Sanguin Psychotherapist

Written by Bruce Sanguin

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