“Mommy,” my youngest son asked looking around warily, “are there dinosaurs around?”
We were climbing up the wooden stairs after having a swim in the cold Atlantic Ocean near the village of Salema in Portugal and I was trying to balance our backpack, the picnic blanket, beach toys, and towels while holding his hand. “Who knows,” I answered absent-mindedly. My son was quiet for a few seconds and I felt his little hand tightening in mine. “But what do we do if we see one?“ “Well, we could take a picture. Or, if it’s scary and big - we run.” This answer did not put my son at ease at all. He became increasingly tense and started monitoring our surroundings very carefully.
After we finally reached the top of the long stairs and put our beach gear in the car, I noticed that my son continued scanning the environment looking pretty anxious. “What’s up with the dinosaur thing?” I asked. He pulled me back down the stairs and showed me the official-looking sign that read: “DON'T FEED THE DINOSAURS.”
It was pretty amazing how noticing the sign in a moment changed my little boy’s perception of the environment from a beautiful calm beach to a dangerous place where scary creatures may be hiding behind the rocks and the trees. He is definitely big enough to know that there are no dinosaurs. But the sign caused him not to be so sure anymore.
Interestingly, our anxious thinking really does go back to the "dinosaur times." Our brain has a special alarm system that is meant to react to even a slightest possibility of danger - no matter how unlikely it might be. This system is crucial in times of real physical danger. But this same system can lead to a great deal of unnecessary anxiety and suffering.
There would be a trigger - an external (something in the environment), or an internal one (a thought, a feeling, a memory, an image, or a sensation). Usually, we'd react to the trigger immediately (after all, we need the alarm for a reason), but then we'd realize that the "danger" is pretty unlikely and relax.
The problems start when we take the false alarm too seriously. If we do - it is only natural that we try to do something about it. And as soon as we give some serious consideration to that false alarm, the vicious cycle of anxiety develops. All attention is now directed on the possibility of danger. The dinosaurs seem to be hiding behind every corner. It doesn’t matter how unlikely that would be. All that matters is that it’s a possibility. Selective attention takes over and the spotlight is on the danger. The scary thoughts become "sticky" - they draw all your attention and won't go away.
The typical potential danger in their case would be:
- What if I fail the exam?
- Did I turn off the stove?
- If I approach this person, they may reject me.
- I feel dizzy – what if I faint?
- Does this thought make me a bad and immoral person?
- Negative thoughts are bad and I shouldn’t be thinking them.
To cope with the anxiety, people try to avoid the potential danger or at least seek safety or ask for reassurance. The problem is – none of these strategies are effective in the long term. Why? Because one of the main features of anxiety is the difficulty living with uncertainty. And as there’s really not much that’s certain in our lives, this constant pursuit of certainty is certain to fail (pun intended).
If you have anxiety and have asked (or Googled) for reassurance, you know how good it may feel initially. But you also know that within a few minutes you will start thinking, “But what if they are wrong? Or what if they are just trying to make me feel better? Or maybe I didn’t explain myself well…” The disappearing good feeling is short-lived and you are back to being anxious.
The more you try to avoid the “danger” or to somehow make yourself feel better, the more you learn that this is the only way to cope.
So, what can you do instead?
1. Don’t take your thoughts so seriously. Thoughts are not facts. And they are not threats. They are just, - well, - thoughts. Ask yourself whether the recurrent thought that you may be having is bringing you closer to the life you want to live. If it does, - by all means nurture it and continue the journey toward your goals. But if it just keeps you worried and stuck, accept that the thought is there, and take the steps that you have wanted to take in spite of it.
2. Stop avoiding the perceived danger. Yes, most of the anxious thoughts and fear are related to things that can actually happen, even though the likelihood of them happening is usually pretty low. The real question is this: what is the price that you are paying for the avoidance? How does it affect your peace of mind, relationships, productivity, health, career? Usually the avoidance does not make you safer in any significant way. It just negatively affects your life.
3. Resist the temptation to use safety behaviours. Of course, you may want to try thinking positive thoughts, breathing deeply, or bringing a friend when you decide to face a situation that you perceive as anxiety-provoking. By all means, do it as long as you don’t avoid the situation. As you become less scared, though, try to just be in a situation without resorting to those safety behaviours. That way you will quickly learn that you can deal with the situation on your own and you are not dependent on anything or anyone to cope with it.
The only sustainable answer to anxiety is facing your scary thoughts and accepting that even though the odds are in your favour, there is still a chance (albeit a very small one) that whatever you fear may happen. If it doesn’t happen – you saved yourself from a lifetime of doubt, worry, insecurity, and fear. And if it does – you will face it and deal with it.
Meanwhile, my son came up with a new line of questioning: “Could it be that they still live in this part of the world?”
“I thought they were extinct,” I said. “But you are right – there is a warning sign. And we may never know what it means. I think we can now go down to the beach for dinner. And if the dinosaurs approach you – try not to feed them. After all, the sign could be there for a reason.”
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Anna Prudovski is a Psychologist and the Clinical Director of Turning Point Psychological Services. She has a special interest in treating anxiety disorders and OCD, as well as working with parents.
Anna lives with her husband and children in Vaughan, Ontario. When she is not treating patients, supervising clinicians, teaching CBT, and attending professional workshops, Anna enjoys practicing yoga, going on hikes with her family, traveling, studying Ayurveda, and spending time with friends. Her favorite pastime is reading.