This is What Anxiety, Fear, and Anger Protect Against

by | Apr 5, 2020 | Anxiety, Intrusive Thoughts, Transitions - General | 31 comments

There is a healthy place for anxiety, fear and anger. Fear alerts us to real-and-present danger. Anxiety, when approached through the lens of compassion, is a wise messenger alerting us to needs and wounds that are asking for attention. And righteous anger, which I’ve been hearing from many clients these past couple of weeks regarding how this global situation has been handled and the inequities it has painfully highlighted, is a powerful mobilizing force that can lead to social and personal change.

But when anxiety is left unattended and we take every thought and feeling at face value; when fear hightails into overdrive and we see danger in every corner; and when healthy anger morphs into blame and attack, these core emotions are no longer helpful. And quite often, when we slow down enough, we see that they’re protectors against the one feeling that most people don’t want to feel: grief.

We are all grieving, and during this challenging time it’s important to remember that anxiety, fear, and anger are often placeholders for grief. We are being asked, both individually and collectively, to name the defensive emotions as they arise so that we can soften into our grief. This is what we’re always being asked, but the normal invitations are heightened during times of great change. As Jungian therapist Juliet Rohde-Brown, PhD writes in this article:

This pandemic targets the lungs. In some medicines of the world, ailments in this area of the body speak to an experience of overwhelming loss. A pandemic does not separate people by race, class, gender, ethnicity, religion, geography, political or theoretical orientation. It includes all people. Pan, the mythological god of wild nature, whose parents were messenger and forest dweller, spreads the sound of a calling through the music of his pipes in a uniquely trickster way. Our collective consumerism and sense of separateness from others and from nature, and ultimately from our own true nature has caused a great deal of suffering and lack of remembrance of our sacred calling as a species. At the bottom of that suffering is a grieving, a grieving that we have mostly not allowed ourselves to lean into, a grieving that is held in the body and kept at illusory bay by fear. 

We’re grieving differently as this pandemic affects us in different ways. But, as always in transitions, the current global grief of what’s afflicting our planet – the grief for the vulnerable, the elderly, healthcare workers and all essential workers, the grief for those who have lost loved ones and are suffering through the illness themselves – the global grief intersects with our personal grief, and when we soften the defenses the pain comes through.

Yet there are so many ways to a void our soft, vulnerable hearts. Since we didn’t see vulnerability modeled growing up, we don’t know what it looks like to drop down into the undefended place. Instead, when we’re feeling scared or sad we resort to the default defenses, which is to harden, blame, attack, and panic. These do not serve us, and yet it’s where we all go at times. Dr. Rohde-Brown continues:

Fear over illness and death can drive us to imagine worst-case scenarios, to grasp at our material survival and hoard more than our share, to wipe up literal and figurative excrement (i.e., the rush for toilet paper), to forget about those most vulnerable, to search for a place for blame to land, and to panic. Alternately, fear can be a teacher. We may allow ourselves to sit with the feelings that arise, to share our innermost selves in relationship with others, to be present to frailties and perpetrations without condoning, but with compassion, and become acquainted with our perennial interconnectedness.

We have a misguided belief that says that if we soften we’ll fall apart and or become paralyzed. It’s the opposite that’s true: our softness is our grace and our fire. When we soften instead of harden, we are fueled with the energy to take action and offer support to others, whether that’s for an elderly neighbor who needs help with their shopping, sewing masks, donating money, or attending to your own latent pain that is emerging with increased potency during this time. Never forget that doing your inner work is not a selfish act. Rather, it’s the first step we take toward being able to offer ourselves as healing vessels of change and service in the world.

It’s normal to armor up during times of stress and anxiety (which we’re clearly in). It’s our instinct to protect and to some degree it helps us power on. But if we become too armored for too long, we lose touch with our heart, which is the source of what makes us human and is the pulsing center that keeps us connected to everything that matters.

Last Sunday, I met virtually with my monthly new moon group, and the moment I saw their faces on my screen I started to cry. I didn’t even know why I was crying, and it didn’t matter. All of the “holding it together” broke loose like a dam and I wept in their loving “arms.” The armor that I didn’t even know I was carrying melted. My heart, which apparently was defended, softened.

The next morning, broken open now, I cried again, the weeks of sadness flooding in. I wept for the “big” and the “small” pain: the tens of thousands of people who have died and their families; the unspeakably stressful financial toll that this virus is taking; the worldwide pain that arises from living with an unprecedented awareness of uncertainty.

I feel sad that the most simple and primal task – going to the grocery store – is now fraught with risk and fear. I’m sad that human beings, even my own neighbors who I’ve known for ten years, are a threat. I feel sad that we all move to the other side of the road when we pass each other on walks.

I’m sad for our 15-year old son who, after being homeschooled his entire life, was just finding his place in the world outside our family and now is like a caged animal. I feel heartbroken for my dear friend here in Boulder who has been suffering with covid-19 for weeks. I feel sad that I don’t know how to support her, that her illness triggers my own fear, that I can’t drive up the road and give her what she’s needing most right now: a hug. I feel sad for a hundred things, some nameable and many unnameable, and I let myself grieve them as best I can. We don’t have to know why we’re grieving to let ourselves grieve.

Crying is medicine. It opens the inner aqueducts and fills the waters of the well. It’s a funny thing with tears: when we release the waters of our heart, the heart fills up again. I think of my clients and course members who struggle with letting themselves cry because of the early, shame-based messages they received: “Crying is weak. “Crying is for sissies.” “Get over it.” “Toughen up.” “If you don’t stop crying I’ll give you something to cry about.” These messages lead to other beliefs about big feelings, like “If I start crying, I’ll never stop.” While we can become mired in intrusive pain, more often than not when we let ourselves cry we find renewed energy to keep living and loving.

Have you had a big cry lately? Share in the comments below.

***

Note: If you’re struggling with intrusive thoughts and anxiety, one of the most potent prescriptions for healing them at the root is to allow yourself to live in whole-hearted, full-bodied expression. This means learning to spiral out of head-realm and down into body-realm where the heart taps out its song to the rhythm of our emotional lives. This is what I teach in Trust Yourself: A 30-day Program to Help You Overcome Your Fear of Failure, Caring What Others Think, Perfectionism, Difficulty Making Decisions, and Self-Doubt. The fourteenth round of this live course will start on Saturday, April 25, 2020, and I look forward to connecting with you there. If you would like to take the course but the cost is prohibitive, please reach out to us using the contact tab at the top of this site and we’ll discuss options.

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31 Comments

  1. I had a few days earlier this week where I cried everyday. Sometimes I knew why, sometimes I wasn’t sure, and sometimes the underlying feelings completely caught me off guard. I didn’t realise until I read your previous article that I was experiencing loneliness as the floodgates opened.

    Do people find themselves seeking a good cry? I find that when I am struggling I know I could do with space to cry to let it all out and I try often to create that space to help bring the feelings to the surface.

    I am still learning that it’s okay to cry and express my pain and feelings, so I try to give them space as much as possible. I think I can do this without it becoming intrusive.

    Thank you for the article Sheryl ?

    Reply
      • Thank you for the recommendation, that article really resonates with me.

        Following on from separation anxiety as a child, I closed up and became the good child who minimally expressed big emotions.

        However, I knew all along that I couldn’t contain them.
        Funnily enough when I started journaling after reading your book last year, I remembered that I actually kept a journal on and off between the ages of 9-13 because I couldn’t contain my big, uncomfortable emotions or digest stressful situations!

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      • While reading your article, I felt that I was heard, even though I didn’t say a word. Thank you Sheryl.

        Reply
        • Beautiful to receive. Thank you.

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  2. I am in the most ‘vulnerable’ group, in this pandemic…I have serious underlying health issues.
    I have been crying most days, but only for short periods of time.
    I live on my own, and havnt seen my boyfriend in over a month.
    My grief is mostly about him..being separated, and not knowing when it will be safe for us to be intimate again…even just kissing. I think I’m kind of coping, but then I realise I’m not, when my heart gets touched, by thoughts about him. At times the pain got almost unbearable, but not often. I also have some sadness about not seeing my daughter..and worry for her financial situation. I realise it’s a time of healing…, or thst is the potential. Time to go deeper and find a stronger sense of myself.
    I hope that this Pandemic will bring transformation for alot of people. We need to wake up to how many of us,are living futile, meaningless lives..and like u say, we’ve forgotten our connection with the earth..with our true selves..yes thst is the true grief.
    Thankyou for helping me to see that. I think this is a time for us,all to wake up.

    Reply
    • Thank you for sharing, Claudia. May this time bring clarity and healing for many.

      Reply
  3. Thank you Sheryl,
    I found that this last month I’ve experienced the most existential anxiety and fear that I’ve ever had my whole life. I struggle with uncertainty (and wow is this an uncertain time ) also , loss and I find it very hard to find my way out of my anxious mindset because of my sensitive nature, and how easily I experience the worlds collective pain and fear.. I grieve all the same collective situations you describe in your email . But I need the help to find my way through the collective dark night of the soul . This pandemic has triggered every thing I’ve ever stored safely away my entire life .. it’s all come to the surface. I meditate and pray daily .. sometime many times a day. I guess I’m learning who I really am…

    Reply
    • Your last line gave me chills: “I guess I’m learning how I really am.” Yes, this time in confronting, revealing, profoundly challenging, and ultimately, we pray, deeply healing.

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  4. You’re such a magnificent life and spiritual teacher, Sheryl. I am grateful for your teachings; they open up the world to new possibilities and keep me grounded. Peace, and thank you. Don

    Reply
  5. All the intrusive thoughts have flared up again since the quarantine. Also work from home is taking a toll on me. I feel like not interacting with my family via phone anymore, even though I really want to do the same. My intrusive thoughts about my relationship have come up again and I have started having nights where I would become anxious about being anxious and not get sleep most often….. I feel that sometimes being quarantined can bring you to face your worst fears and ugly thoughts..

    Reply
    • Yes, with life stripped down to essentials we are coming face-to-face with out deepest fears. There’s nowhere to run, so we hope that it bring us to healing.

      Reply
  6. Thank you Sheryl for acknowledging that personal work can also be a means in which we show up for others. I have experienced many ups and downs, ranging from wanting to fortify my community to shutting myself away from others. Earlier today, I participated in a breath work ceremony with a group of women via zoom. Everyone in this group was experiencing grief in their own way and I took solace in knowing that I was not alone in this feeling. During the session, I was overwhelmed with a sense of grief. Generally, I try to squash this feeling and often find difficulty in “letting it all out”. However, today I challenged myself to open up to the grief and to let go of the need to have a story/explanation about the emotion- tears immediately followed. Somewhere inside of me, I remembered your message about the importance of grieving and how it is interconnected to my capacity for love and joy. Feeling our pain is not an easy task, but the more time we have to slow down and be with ourselves, the more we will be ask to feel our pain and expand our capacity for love.

    Reply
    • Thank you Julia for this. It’s exactly what i needed to hear.

      Reply
    • Beautifully shared, Julia. Thank you. x

      Reply
  7. Sheryl, thank you for sharing your wisdom on every line and for helping us feel okey with our discomfort, sadness and fears. I’m in Barcelona, the lockdown has been keeping us inside for 3 1/2 weeks. The first week, we were so confused about the pandemic that we didn’t even stop to think about it or to feel anything regarding it. But as the weeks go by, this is becoming an emotional challenge. I’ve started having all sorts of nightmares. One was about me living in a place with walls but no roof, a huge wave flooded our homes so there wasn’t any firm ground to stand on. I’d given my wallet with money and my documents to somebody (I think it was my mum) but when I asked her to give it back to me, she told me it had always remained in a one pocket. I searched and searched but all I could withdraw were old sweets, the sense of touching those smashed candies was quite disgusting. When I woke up, I felt my anxiety was choking me. I tried to follow my morning routine, had breakfast with the children, I meditated, I read one lesson from ACIM, I cleaned a little until I started to cry a long cry. I longed for my family and friends in Argentina. Not that I wanted to go back, I missed the familiar taste in that longing. In spite of my grief, I started to dance to a youtube dancing class and the sweating helped me move out of my mental entanglement. I’ve been super sensitive ever since the dream I told you above. Oops sorry, this must be the longest comment ever. Thank you, your newsletters always feel like a balm. Love you Sheryl

    Reply
    • No need to apologize! Thank you for sharing your dream, your longing, your pain, your fear. It’s shared by millions right now, if not billions. Just know that we will get through this. xo

      Reply
  8. Hello Sheryl,
    Once again a wonderful post! I’ve been struggling with thought of being “sick of” or “bored” in my relationship even though I have a wonderful partner with which I have wonderful and challenging conversations! Not boring at all! But my head just won’t let me feel satisfied in my relationship! I don’t want to leave but I feel that my thoughts are so negative and I feel so irritated with my incredible and absolutely wonderful boyfriend there is no hope….I can’t tell if it’s even anxiety anymore….I just want to be happy with him..he’s everything I’ve ever wanted and more…..

    Reply
    • It’s clearly relationship anxiety, Emily. Textbook, in fact :).

      Reply
  9. I’ve been keeping it together for many weeks but today I cried and cried. What broke me open was my dog finding a bunny nest and getting one baby before I could get to it. At first I wept for the poor baby bunny but then the tears kept coming and I knew I was letting much more out. All my grief and anxiety and fear and everything relating to this pandemic. I feel raw now but also a bit lighter. Good to get it out.

    Reply
    • So, so good to release that pain, and it often happens that there will be a catalyzing experience – in this case your dog getting the baby bunny – that opens the floodgates.

      Reply
  10. If you’re journaling about the content of the anxiety itself – in this case about you’re partner – you’re inflaming the anxiety. It’s time to turn inward and ask, “If I wasn’t focused on the relationship anxiety, what would I be exploring/feeling/needing?”

    Reply
  11. Wow, let me tell you- I saw this email in my inbox yesterday but hadn’t read it yet. I just had a big cry a few moments ago and went straight to this email. My heart does feel reconnected right now, after the cry and reading it! I spent the day feeling really disconnected. It’s been almost a month, and I’m finding it’s finally starting to wear on introverted me! I truly appreciate spending my lunches with my friends who I happen to also work with. I miss them terribly! I miss their energy, their levity. And the whole thing is so heavy. I just keep feeling so upset that it’s not a bad dream, or bad thought trail. I keep wanting to come back to reality.
    Thank you for this piece.

    Reply
    • I’m so glad you had a good cry. It’s one of the medicines that will get us through this challenging time.

      Reply
  12. Dear Sheryl, thanks for all of your posts, your book and for your sensitivity and genuineness. I’ve experienced anxiety in the uncertainty, tears of loss and sleeplessness. A recent change is that when I pray, I pray to my Heavenly Father but now want to include a mother, Mother Earth….that type of being. I tried to think of a figure from my past as a representation and no one comes to mind. I woke in the middle of last night and started to cry for the loss of missing a loving mother. Grieving that loss again. And knowing that I need to be that for myself in a greater way than ever. Thanks for your help.

    Reply
    • It sounds like part of what’s being asked of you during this time is to grow a relationship with an imaginal Great Mother. She’s waiting for you :). It would be an excellent time to review the Wise Ally visualization in the Sacred Sexuality course and stay open to who comes to you.

      Reply
  13. Hi Sheryl
    I hope you can help me – just recently took the Open Your Heart course, which was excellent. In this course is a mention of getting in touch with your true essence to see your partner’s true essence. With the pandemic, this feels so hard. How can I do this? I am really struggling after feeling like I made great progress. Thank you.

    Reply
    • Go through the course again and start a daily journaling practice, if you don’t have one already.

      Reply
  14. Yes yes yes to this post.

    I’m moving tomorrow to be with D at his home and I’ve been feeling incredibly anxious about moving, which is strange because we live together usually (we have returned to our hometowns for lockdown however ended up in separate homes due to someone in my house getting sick and us having to self isolate). (They are fine by the way!)

    The more comfortable i’ve gotten at home, the more i’ve felt resistance about moving to D’s. I know this isn’t about moving to D’s, it’s about not wanting to be an adult and not wanting to face the scary realities of right now. After all, i’ve been living with my parents for the past 3 weeks – it’s felt like a break from adult life responsibilities…

    This resilience quickly turned into anxiety. Suddenly I couldn’t picture D’s face properly – the thought of him made me feel sick with anxiety, I was criticising, scanning. It was sneaky how it crept in actually, I almost didn’t notice.

    I started feeling irritable with my parents too, I love them so much, but I started feeling irritable because they’re clearly emotional about me moving to D’s and potentially not seeing me for months, and it ‘triggered’ me, because I didn’t want to start feeling sad.

    That’s when I realised, the anxiety, resilience, irritation…it’s a mask to cover up the grief I feel, the uncertainty, about when I will next see my parents, and that I will miss them terribly. As soon as I acknowledged it, and sat with it, my anxiety began to dissolve. Still working on the irritation, but it’s easier now I know that it’s not serving me.

    Reply
  15. Sheryl — A beautiful post, one that really helps orient the process of moving through this time with grace. I stumbled when I read, “Never forget that doing your inner work is not a selfish act. Rather, it’s the first step we take toward being able to offer ourselves as healing vessels of change and service in the world.”

    It is not only the first step. It is the first step of endless circles of steps that we will be taking through the life of our inner world. Doing your inner work is the first step, and an integral part of the second step, and the third step, and so on.

    You alluded to this when you noted that we must make space to grieve and to honor our tears of renewal. Along with honoring our feelings, we must recognize that the inner work is never over. But the rewards for undertaking it become ever so much sweeter.

    Reply

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