Anxiety screams, “Danger!” But it’s not what you think.

by | Jun 26, 2022 | Anxiety, Health anxiety, Intrusive Thoughts | 33 comments

Anxiety insists, “You don’t love your partner!”

Anxiety declares, “You have a terminal illness!”

Anxiety whispers, “You’re going to hurt your baby.” (Anxiety doesn’t always yell; sometimes it’s a quiet, convincing voice.)

Your job is to say, “Thank you, anxiety. You have my full attention. Now what is the need, feeling, metaphor, or growth opportunity that this alarming statement is pointing to?”

If that sounds new or bizarre to you, ask yourself, “How has it worked out when I take my anxiety at face value? What happens when I believe it as categorically true?”

Is there risk in loving? Yes, to love is a risk.

Is there risk in living? Yes, to live is a risk.

But there are more effective ways to manage the risk then becoming caught on the hamster wheel of intrusive thoughts.

Anxiety is the distress flare and we must listen to it; where we go awry is in the interpretation. We take the anxious thoughts/declarations/alarms at face value, which is understandable since, for most of history, anxiety has been a response to real-and-present physical danger; to ignore anxiety in the past was a matter of life-and-death. But that is usually no longer the case, meaning that anxiety’s presence does not mean that physical danger is imminent (other than the inherent risks of loving and living).

It’s as if anxiety is inviting us to evolve, to become more nuanced and less literal in our interpretation, to enter the language of the unconscious, which speaks in the language of metaphor and imagery. Anxiety is acting now as an emissary from the unconscious, a little boat sent out from the Mother Ship – as Gary Zukav refers to the guiding principle of the Self – to do her bidding, which is to bring us into wholeness.

One of dreamworker Jeremy Taylor’s trademark phrases is “the danger of mistaken literalism,” which means that when you hear, “I don’t love my partner” or “I have cancer”, the mistake is taking those statements literally instead of understanding that anxiety is accurate in its message of urgency but the source of the urgency is not what you think.

What is the danger, then, that anxiety is pointing to? To start, we need to change the word “danger” to “risk”, for danger implies imminent urgency and usually refers to physical safety whereas risk refers to inner realms.

The risk, then, is giving your heart to another human being when your heart has been hurt again and again.

The risk is trusting life and letting go of control when control has been the foothold that helped you survive your early years.

The risk is in “stepping into the arena”, as Brené Brown says: speaking your truth and exposing yourself to the inevitable criticism that occurs when you share who you truly are.

The risk is in allowing yourself to feel the squashed down, hidden emotions that you sequestered away long away.

The risk, in short, is in living your life fully.

Anxiety says, “Life isn’t safe,” and anxiety is right; life isn’t safe. Everywhere we turn, there is risk. Again, it’s not the physical danger of a lion prowling through the jungle. It’s not the danger of the plague sweeping through your town and wiping out 80% of its citizens. It’s more subtle than that. But the primitive part of our brain, the part responsible for sounding the anxiety alarm, doesn’t know that the risk isn’t a matter of life-and-death anymore. And on the emotional level, it all feels the same.

In other words, risking your bruised heart feels like life-and-death. Entering the arena feels like you’re about to be thrown to the lions. Loving your baby with a love that feels bigger than the universe and so is accompanied by the possibility of loss is a risk that seems insane to take. Feeling the long-sequestered feelings, the ones that made you feel like you were going to die when they tidal waved through you as a small, young child, feels like inviting in a tsunami.

The risks have changed. They’re not as obvious as they once were. Without the daily and blatant danger of death on our doorstep, we’re being invited to evolve our capacity to live with our full hearts, and anxiety is leading the way. It’s pointing us to the ways in which we’re off-kilter in our four realms of self and the growth opportunity to learn how to live in the present, with all of its uncertainty, with more equanimity.

Several of my other courses and my book address the first invitation – to realign and learn to attend to the four realms of self – in depth. In Grace Through Uncertainty, I address the second invitation: the growth opportunity to learn how to live in the present, with all of its uncertainty, with more equanimity. At the core of intrusive thoughts is the need for certainty. At the core of health anxiety is the need for comfort and safety. At the core of money anxiety is the need for security.

If you’re ready to receive the roadmap that will help you create a personal and meaningful practice that will allow you to surrender into a true pillow of comfort that can absorb the fears inherent to this risky endeavor of living and loving fully, please join me for this fifth round of Grace Through Uncertainty: A 30-Day Course to Heal Intrusive Thoughts, Address Health/Death/Money Anxiety from the Root, Feel More Comfortable with Change, and Become the Source of Your Own Aliveness. The course begins on Saturday, July 9, 2022, and I very much look forward to seeing you there.

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33 Comments

  1. Hi Sheryl,
    Thank you for your beautiful blog post once again. I’ve been trying to decipher these messages for so long now and slowly some of them lose their grip. There is one that isn’t and that’s my anxiety around my country, the people in my country, the culture in my country. I get anxiety just biking though my city because houses look ‘dutch’, I only have expat friends because dutch people give me anxiety. It’s so weird and it’s driving my crazy. I have had this as long as I remeber and it has made me want to leave and has made me leave plenty. My mother is Italian and raised me in the Italian culture so I’ve never felt at home here. But it’s taking epic proportions and I’ve been miserable for so long. I understand that it has to do with her hate for this place and her pain when moving here and feeling misunderstood but I want to at least be able to enjoy this beautiful city where I live. I know I will never feel fully Dutch but I love my friends and don’t want to leave just because of my anxiety which I can’t seem to figure out. I hope you can shed light on it. I love my English boyfriend to bits and he can’t leqve Amsterdam right now, so I want to at least make it work here and feel a little connected with the place. I see my therapist twice a week but this seems to be the one thing I am so stuck on.
    Love, Stella

    Reply
    • Stella: First off, it’s wonderful that you’re moving through some of your other anxiety themes. I know you were feeling quite stuck for a while so this is great to hear. As far as the feelings about where you live, it sounds like you’ve already identified the root source, which is absorbing your mother’s pain and hatred around it. The invitation, then, is to individuate from your mother so that you can separate her pain from your experience. This is a powerful invitation, and one that will allow you to step into yourself as your own separate person.

      Reply
      • Hi Sheryl,

        Thank you for your reply! I definitely realize what the root is and what I need to work on, I feel that there is a lot of fear around this though. I’m happy not being Dutch and being able to identify as Italian, my lifestyle and my individuality. I do not want to settle here and my fear has also let me to who i am as a person today. I am scared that if I start to like it more here, or if my fears will go away I will turn into someone I do not want to be, that I will change so much as a person. For example, I’ve never followed the path that was expected in the dutch society, have a difference sense of style, have become a world citizen by moving away from Holland, found a partner who isn’t dutch and understands how it is to not feel dutch in Amsterdam and whom I feel at home with. I don’t want to lose who it has made me, and all of a sudden want a white fence and become part of a culture I do not feel home to. So maybe that’s also part of my fear, that by moving away from my mother and separating from her I will not be me anymore. That she was the one who connected me to my Italian side and separating I will lose that part of me.

        Anyways, thank you so much for getting back to me! xx

        Reply
        • I think the invitation here is to realize that who you are can never be changed by the culture you are in. I am British living in the US. I had culture shock at first which can last a surprisingly long while and maybe that is also at play here. But I am happy here now despite not feeling “American.” Actually I see my Britishness as a point of pride and uniqueness. My guess is that your mom’s sense of identity was really hooked on superficials such as image, friends kept, decor or the like. Identity is none of that stuff. You are being invited to get to know who you really are under the surface things that define you…and those things will never be altered by where you live. You are also being invited to learn new ways of being…which is scary. Whilst the core you can’t be altered you might find yourself changing some opinions or beliefs. Guess what? That is fine. That is growth! Embrace these opportunities for growth that life has thrown your way!

          Reply
  2. I love who Sheryl you wrote, “at the core of intrusive thoughts is the need for certainty.” I’ve struggled with wanting to know things since I was about 13 years old and got into horoscopes. All of that pushed me into an obsession of wanting to know what the future was going to hold, who I was suppose to marry, and everything I had to do in order to be happy. I still find myself yearning for that certainty through personality quizzes or praying incessantly asking God for questions and certainty about my life, all of which just overwhelms me and I know is very unhealthy. But at the core it there is a need for certainty and nothing is really certain, for me it’s just God who is certain everything else has the potential to hurt me, especially when it comes to relationships and that scares me soo much.

    I was dating someone who was not that attractive physically, but who was a great guy and now I’m dating a guy who I’m really physically attracted to but everything makes me wonder if he really is a “great guy.” The thoughts are back along with fear of not knowing what it’s going to happen, but I know that I just have to work through these issues myself and make sure I’m not just going off of my intrusive thoughts.

    Thanks Sheryl for all you do!

    Reply
  3. Dear Sheryl,

    Thank you for your amazing work!

    And thank you for this timely post, as I am stuck deep in anxious thoughts about my relationship. I am considering signing up for your course, but I am wondering … my intrusive thoughts circle around the question whether my partner still loves me. I am constantly scared to be left, and it has been an issue in past relationships, as well.
    Will the course be right for me?

    Reply
    • Dear Linda: Yes, the Break Free course would help you enormously. Fears around relationship tend to vacillate between the fear of being left (rejection, loss) and the fear of engulfment. Both are addressed in the course.

      Reply
  4. Hello Sheryl,

    I’ve been reading your blog for quite some time and it has really helped me get through most of my relationship anxiety. However there is a matter that concerns me. My boyfriend of 1.5 years is loving, caring, supporting of my hobbies and before all this anxiety started he did feel like home to me. Also I like spending time with him most of the times, however I get irritated pretty easily with him since I’m a really sensitive person.

    The only thing that concerns me are his jokes. He loves teasing people, not only me, but sometimes his jokes hurt my feelings and make me sad. Every time this happens, I tell him that it’s ok and that I’m going to work on that and not be so sensitive since I know sometimes i overreact. However I read recently a post about abuse hidden as jokes and it really spiked my anxiety and I don’t know if it’s just my ocd making a big deal out of nothing or if there is a true issue in my relationship.

    I immediately told him to stop the jokes and he said that he is really sorry about it and that he doesn’t want me to be sad. He said that he’s going to try and cut the jokes, however it’s going to be pretty difficult for him. I know he loves me but I’m so worried right now that all of my anxiety is coming back about whether I love him or not and it makes me sad…

    Thank you so much for your help

    Reply
    • Hi Nick,

      I think jokes are hard for us sensitives sometimes. As a sensitive person, you’re always trying to be mindful of others’ feelings and can’t fathom why someone would poke at another person in a hurtful way.

      I’ve found that humor can exist on a spectrum and some people have pretty dark humor, even if they’re otherwise good people. I’m wondering if you’re sending conflicting messages by saying that it’s okay, that you need to stop being so sensitive, and then later telling him to cut them out. Maybe something like, “I know you probably don’t mean it personally and I need to work on not overreacting, but your jokes really hurt my feelings. They make me feel (insecure, inadequate, judged, etc) and make me not want to be around you.” Be frank about how it makes you feel.

      In my experience, it can be both—the OCD and real issues rubbing up against each other. Just remember that abuse is a common obsession for those of us with relationship anxiety (it would mean we’re the exception and therefore need to leave). What also helped me is realizing there’s no such thing as an issue-free relationship; we’re all imperfect and hurt each other sometimes. What matters is that you’re both willing to grow and change in those tough areas. That said, abuse is one of those areas that should be confronted/ruled out.

      Reply
      • As a matter of fact yes, I think I was sending conflicting messages to him…

        However on the concept of abuse, I think I know that he has the heart of a child and his jokes are just his way of interacting so I don’t believe he would do anything to hurt me on purpose… Nonetheless I just can’t stop all those thoughts and I’m constantly irritated and suspicious so I get angry even at the smallest things…

        The reasons that I believe that he wouldn’t hurt me is because, even though some of the jokes that I remember are pretty mean, he supports me and believes in me, urges me to do things in order for me to feel better and is always there for me during this bad period…

        It’s just, with all those suspicions my doubts have come back stronger and I’m really sad.

        Reply
        • Yes – it sounds like you know deep down that he isn’t abusive, but the thoughts keep coming back. That’s an intrusive thought.

          I’ve had some pretty crazy intrusive thoughts about my partner, and what I’ve found is that you need to stop trying to answer that question (in this case “is he abusive?”) and allow it to exist. People can say hurtful things without being an abusive person, and I think we can all do abusive things sometimes. Who hasn’t yelled something nasty in anger only to regret it later? It happens.

          If your partner genuinely cares about you and wouldn’t say something to hurt you intentionally (and it doesn’t keep happening), I would treat the thought as an intrusive thought and do what Sheryl teaches on those. It involves acknowledging the thought and allowing it to exist without interacting with it. The more you ruminate and try to find answers, the stronger the thought will get. And then (importantly) let yourself feel whatever emotion is buried beneath all the mental chatter. I’ve been dealing with obsessions for 10 years, and I’m just now starting to heal by understanding the anxious mind and truly feeling my feelings.

          I would take the Break Free course and/or read through Sheryl’s work on intrusive thoughts.

          Reply
          • I will consider purchasing the course even though it’s a difficult period for me…

            It’s just that there were some things he said because he can have black humor sometimes like, acting to be sad and when I asked for affection he said in “nah, you don’t deserve it” and I asked him “really?” and he told me he’s just teasing me, however I’m also really insecure so it left a mark… I know how much he loves me but searching on the internet on the topic of abuse only triggered me further 🙁

            Thank you for your responses.

            Reply
            • I forgot to mention that this was the only time he has said something like that and in general his sense of humour is black humor to teasing. Also whenever I don’t like something he’s quick to apologize and one time he told me that he doesn’t want me to feel inadequate because I’m perfect and he’s the one with the problem with these jokes.

              Reply
              • Nick: This is classic relationship anxiety, not abuse. That doesn’t mean there isn’t room to grow in your relationship (there always is) but as A wisely stated, as long as you’re both willing to learn and grow then there isn’t a problem. I urge you to stop Googling about abuse; it will only feed the anxious fire. The Break Free course would help you enormously, especially the section on intrusive thoughts.

                Reply
            • My brother will say things like that, which annoyed my (other) brother’s girlfriend, who is also sensitive and not used to it, to no end. I’ve come to understand that some people like to get a rise out of people. I can see how you wouldn’t like that, but it might be his humor. As long he respects your feelings, I wouldn’t be too worried.

              Reply
  5. I am very excited to join this course. When faced with a serious illness of my partner it really sparked anxiety about health and the uncertainties of life. I realized how the whole world revolves around this unrealistic image of healthy happy people who live healthy happy lives. And we like to believe this is life but it’s not… I realized I was fooling myself with believing I can control my life and the future eventhough deep down I knew I can’t… So Im very excited about this journey!

    Reply
    • I’ll look forward to seeing you there, Nicole!

      Reply
  6. Hi Sheryl,

    As always, love the blog post!

    I’ve been having an interesting intrusive thought this past week that of course I feel like I need to analyse and make sense of until I feel some sort of certainty.
    I’ve been trying to work out what the thought actually might mean or what I’m supposed to learn from it but can’t quite work it out.

    The thought it based around the idea that if my partner and I were to break up for whatever reason that eventually, after being sad, I would be okay and maybe even relieved (for no having to feel anxious anymore/no more thoughts).
    It made me think two things:
    1. That all it would take would be for me to detach from my partner and therefore I’m only with him because I’m attached to him and not really in love with him. (The attachment spike gets me quite often).
    2. If I would be okay eventually and feel free from anxiety and maybe eventually meet someone new, that it means that this relationship I have now is not special.
    Or something along the lines of if I’m fine without him and he could eventually be replaced how is this relationship special now?

    I understand that at the root of this is a need for certainty and cloudy vision of the future but I’m unsure what these intrusive thoughts really might mean.
    At the moment there’s is no reason for my partner and I to break up so all the thoughts about this are irrelevant but I guess anxiety wants to think of every possibility.

    When my last relationship ended, it took a little while to really let go, even when I knew it was really over, I would have anxiety about moving on, for example if I felt happy and free from anxious thoughts it would then make me think ‘this is proof that the relationship wasn’t meant to be and I should have listened to the doubts while I was still in the relationship’
    Or if I would find someone attractive in that time it would freak me out because I still wanted to want my ex.
    Once I fully let go and accepted that it was okay to move on and it didn’t mean anything about the previous relationship then I was fully okay and actually felt amazing not having thoughts anymore and not feeling triggered anymore.
    So now, having had that experience, I know that if my current relationship ended I would eventually be okay but that kind of fuels more anxiety for me.

    I hope this makes sense.
    I’m wondering if you have any insight to what is under these thoughts and triggers.

    Hope you’re having a great day! 🙂

    Reply
    • Hi Stef, I’m not Sheryl but I have a few thoughts.

      I’ve read a lot of situations similar to yours, and even in my own experience, when you’re face-to-face with real love, there may not be anxiety at the thought of the relationship ending (if you have relationship anxiety). Why? Because without the relationship there would be no risk, no pain, no need to change or grow for another person. I’ve noticed that the intrusive thought of maybe feeling relief about the relationship being over—provided that you’re in a basically healthy relationship—is really that part of you that is sick of suffering. Without your partner, you wouldn’t have to suffer from this anxiety, right? Except that’s completely wrong. The anxiety will just show up in your next relationship or will attach onto something else. Your partner is just the target of your anxiety right now; the problem isn’t him, it’s the sense of unease within you that needs to be attended to.

      I can understand the worry about the thought of eventually being okay, but I think that’s actually a healthy mindset to have. I think in any relationship it’s important to know and accept that if this current relationship ended, we would eventually move on and perhaps find happiness with someone else. Actually, it’s thoughts like those that help us surrender and let go of control—”I’m choosing to love this person, but if it doesn’t work out for some reason, I know that I will be okay and will be able to be happy again.”

      I’ve been with my fiance for 5.5 years. I broke up with him after 8 months because the anxiety in our relationship was too much to bear, and it felt like such a relief to not have to deal with it anymore. After being broken up for 6 months, I ran into him through a friend and wanted to be with him again. Then, after about another 8 months, I had the strong urge to break it off because “maybe he wasn’t the one because I was feeling so anxious,” or “I can’t be in a relationship and explore my individuality at the same time,” and “I can’t devote myself to another person,” etc. I didn’t break it off that second time, though, because I knew that would be it…he wouldn’t take me back again, and he would no longer be part of my life, probably even as a friend. And I knew that’s not what I wanted. Now we’re engaged.

      I would encourage you to stop analyzing your thoughts and feelings (this is a compulsion) and try to find the true feelings that are underneath all the mental chatter. The thoughts are bait for your anxiety, but don’t take it. Let them be and feel your feelings. 🙂

      Reply
      • Thanks so much A for your perspective!
        Your insight was very helpful!

        Your relationship story gives me hope that I can also push through anxiety and be happy with my partner 🙂

        Reply
      • Hi A,
        I love your post. It actually was very encouraging for me as well. I’m curious though about your last paragraph. I can completely see how trying to analyze these thoughts are compulsions, but I am so horrible at understanding the concept of feeling our feelings which I know is silly, but I just truly struggle sitting with my feelings. Do you have any tips for how you’ve done this in your own life and especially in regards to dealing with the relationship anxiety?

        Reply
  7. Hi Sheryl –

    Thank you again for another loving and insightful post. I have really been able to accept my resistance when it shows up in forms of thoughts and I’ve really moved past intrusive thoughts having any foothold with me. However, I am struggling with sensations. I get a heavy sensation in my stomach sometimes and my reaction to this sensation is stress. I sit with this sensation, without thought, and just let it be but I seem to have a hard time moving through it or with it. It feels like stuck energy. I don’t want to make these sensations disappear, rather I’d like to learn how to move with and through them. Do you have any advice on how to move with and through what I can only describe as a stuck feeling in my stomach?

    Reply
    • Hi Brianna: I love that your intention is how to be with and accompany instead of avoid and eliminate; it’s a wonderful starting point. I’m wondering what happens if you literally move with the sensation in some way – dance, breathe, stretch – while being deeply curious about what it might be needing from you.

      Reply
  8. Sheryl
    I’m really struggling with recurring anxiety. I had relationship anxiety when I was dating/engaged, but pushed through it and married. I’ve had this issue of needing to know most of my marriage but have been able to manage. Now, 21 years married I’ve been a wreck for the past 9 months. I can’t eat, my mind never rests. My marriage is great…when I’m not a mess with anxiety. My husband is wonderful and supportive but he can’t understand why I’m like this now, after all this time. Can you please help me understand how to let go of knowing I was anxious at the start of my relationship and that’s ok?

    Reply
    • The more you learn about relationship anxiety the more peace you’ll be able to find around the early anxiety. As such, I highly recommend that you take the Break Free From Relationship Anxiety course. You can learn more here:

      https://conscious-transitions.com/break-free-from-relationship-anxiety-e-course/

      I’m going to guess that you’re in transition right now and that’s why the anxiety is showing up again. Anxiety is both a messenger and a red herring, so it might be distracting you from the grief and groundlessness connected to the current transition as it pulls you into the story that you’re in the wrong relationship as evidenced by the early anxiety.

      Reply
      • I did take the course and it was helpful but my ruminations about memories of times when I was anxious are relentless. I’m also so disturbed by the fact that I’m doing this now. I really thought once I was at this point I’d be over this.

        Reply
        • Intrusive thoughts don’t necessarily stop; it’s our response to them that we can control. I recommend being in therapy if you’re not already, and also making sure that you’ve committed to daily practices that help you connect to your body, heart, and soul.

          Reply
  9. I am so grateful for finding you and your work, Sheryl! I’ve learned so much from the 2 courses I’ve taken and your weekly blogs are inspirational and introspective.
    After 10 years of your work, I am much better at being able to decipher anxious thoughts/messages. Definitely not all, but a good portion of them. Working with anxiety is a lifelong journey!!
    We lost our beloved dog just over a year ago and it was an extremely intense loss!! The grief was like no other. We are finally ready to welcome a new puppy to our family and when we put the deposit down yesterday, I instantly heard thoughts like “your not ready for this”, “this is a 10-12 year commitment “ “are you sure you want to deal with all the dog hair?” “Who’s going to watch the dog on holidays?” While these are all legit thoughts to have, I know my thoughts are fear driven because having another dog is a risk and results in another loss down the road that my heart is trying to protect me from. Deep down I know I am ready. I did it before. I can do it again.

    Reply
    • Dear Kim: Beautiful job at naming the thoughts as protectors of the heart and bringing your loving and wise inner parent to the scene! This is the work exactly. Thank you for sharing, and enjoy your new pup 🥰.

      Reply
  10. Would it be RA if your intrusive thoughts are calm and feel real, mine say ‘I need to leave’, ‘I don’t love you’ etc. I don’t want these thoughts of course but I wonder why they feel so calm if they are quiet and convincing sounding? I often keep asking if I enjoy my time enough with my partner or if I miss her enough? I like seeing my partner but the enjoyment is more relaxed or calm, not a euphoric excitement just relaxed.

    Reply
  11. Hi Sheryl,
    I found your work a few months into my current relationship and it was so amazing to know that this was a real thing and that it might not mean I’m doing something wrong. Well almost a year and a half in, I’m still struggling. It’s not always as strong as it is today, it comes and goes in terms of how loud the thoughts are. I’m always triggered by the smallest things that make me feel this will never work out and I’m not happy with him. We have many differences but I love him a lot and I’m exhausted from this chaos in my mind. Tonight felt like the final straw when the question of ending things became so reachable, and felt as if I couldn’t handle that reality. I felt that hundreds of dollars spent would be worth never feeling this way again, and how I wished I could just speak to you and hear your wisdom and guidance. I was looking into your coursework and there’s just this thought stopping me from purchasing. If I’m feeling this with someone to the point I have to spend hundreds of dollars to feel confident in my decision with them, does that make them the wrong person? Or what if I take the course and still feel this way?
    I know you have so many messages, but I know if I’m meant to have a response that it’ll be.
    I also want to thank you for being so pure and comforting in all that you do.

    Reply

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