First Published December 11, 2018 – Updated August 20, 2019
How we feel shapes a tremendous amount of our life experience, what we believe is possible in terms of our happiness, success, and even health, and even what people and experiences we attract to ourselves. It took me a long time to discover that I have a lot of control over how I choose to feel, and that one thing I didn't like being plagued by was “happiness anxiety.”
This awareness started for me about 10 years ago. I was invited to attend a conference as a keynote speaker. It was a big event, a decent offer of payment for my time, and a topic I love – women’s health and herbal medicine. You’d think I’d be thrilled. But my first reaction wasn’t excitement – it was anxiety. Specifically, that means I have to fly our west which means airplane, which means what happens to my kids if something happens to me…. And so on to the point that within 15 minutes, I was on the verge of cancelling before I'd officially accepted! Of note, this was not an unfamiliar reaction. I'd experienced it many times before – when I got my first book contact, when I got accepted to Yale School of Medicine, and honestly, I felt it a bit every time I just plain felt really happy and secure. In would creep that fear gremlin saying watch out – something terrible is going to happen.
Now if you met me, and looked at the big chances I’ve taken in my life – going to college at 15, birthing my four children at home, applying to medical school at 39, and going to Yale having been a home birth midwife and herbalist for 25 years, anxiety would not be a word that naturally came to mind. I’m the calm one in a storm, battening down the hatches, getting everyone to safety – the kind of person that you’d want on that desert island to handle crises.
So overall, I would never have considered myself as having a problem with anxiety, until that day, when it was staring back at me in the mirror when I was brushing my teeth before bed that evening, still processing whether to go to this event. It was like I was suddenly struck by that proverbial lightning bolt. Lights were turning on in my brain so fast it was like an old-fashioned switchboard in there. And then – voila – I got it all at once. I have happiness anxiety. I have success anxiety. Whoa, I live as if the other shoe is going to drop at any moment.
I realized that I was not infrequently nagged by the feeling that if something really great happened in my life there was going to be some kind of cosmic counterbalance in the form of something really bad happening in my life. That feeling got worse when I became a mom, because the stakes suddenly got a lot higher – something could happen to my partner or dread on dread – my kids. The hidden belief that if something good happened, something “bad” was going to happen, was subtly driving my life and keeping me from enjoying success and experiencing unencumbered happiness. I had what I call happiness anxiety, or I sometimes refer to as success anxiety.But why? Life is actually really good. The evidence doesn’t stack up. So where is this coming from?
Can you relate to this? Do you suddenly find yourself catastrophizing when you’re on the verge of something great happening for you? Do you get stopped in your tracks by a fear just when life feels good and happy? If you have it, you know it's a real thing and can be a serious impediment in your life, keeping you from taking chances on relationships, opportunities, growth – and even just freaking enjoying your life in a big way. I promise you, you’re not crazy, you’re not alone, and it’s something you can totally transform. How? Read on..
Choosing Freedom from Anxiety
As my work became more successful, this thought pattern became too obvious an obstacle – and a burden – for me to ignore any longer. I either had to say no to all the good things coming my way, say yes and live with the fear, or get over it. I decided the latter was the wisest. So I started to intentionally explore it. At first I thought maybe I was inherently a doubting, negative person and that’s all there was to it. But I don't truly believe too many people are inherently that way – and overall I’m way to much of an optimist, so I ditched that theory. Then I semi-seriously entertained the possibility that this was some form of inherited Jewish worry thing. However, speaking with thousands of women around the country in my travels as a national speaker led me to discover that I was not alone in this stressful belief, nor was it only Jewish women feeling it. In fact, I met thousands of women from a wide variety of backgrounds who shared this experience, and it was keeping some of them from living fully, boldly, and happily. Instead of welcoming and celebrating their wins and successes, many were always waiting for the other shoe to drop.
So what was it then? It was a deep dive into the field psychoneuroimmunology – the science that studies the impact of our Stress Response System on how our brains are wired, and as a result, how our thinking and emotions are shaped – that gave me my answer, and the solution. I discovered that I had a form of high functioning anxiety – and it was creating unpleasant background noise in my life, hampering my happiness, and holding me back.
Today I’m going to show you, step-by-step, how you can overcome this symptom 100% just as I did many years ago so that now it’s just a memory of a time that I lived very differently than I do now – with a worry and fear that I know you can overcome, because I did it, too.
But first, why do I call anxiety a symptom? Because it’s a symptom that your brain is stuck in survival mode – and usually it's a for a very real reason.
The Anxious Mind Is Wired to Survive
Human survival drive is incredibly powerful. In fact, it's so strong that we are hardwired to survive even at the expense of our comfort and happiness. Survival mode starts in two small organs called the amygdala (which means almond-shaped) in your brain, one on either side. The amygdala functions quite similarly to a surveillance system; its entire job to scan for, recognize, and record signs of danger in your environment, as well as responding to inner danger signals.
Like surveillance cameras mounted on a building, the amygdala is constantly scanning the perimeter, using your senses of sight, hearing, and smell, to pick up signs of anything that can pose a threat to you. Your amygdala also recognizes potentially threatening facial expressions on others, vocal pitches, behaviors, gestures, and physical movements as possibly hazards to your safety. It then catalogs these as memories in a part of your brain called the hippocampus, and when anything happens that in any way resembles that threat, your brain goes into fast action, triggering your survival mode to kick in.
How Survival Mode Kicks In
So let’s say, for example, a parent, relative, or adult in your life left you feeling vulnerable or was a threat in any way when you were a small child. That person’s facial expressions, mannerisms, movements or behaviors, even their perfume or cologne – anything that signaled danger – were likely imprinted as a sign of danger in your brain. Fast forward to now and you’re hanging out with a friend, on a date, in a business meeting or job interview, or talking with your spouse, and the person you're interacting with makes a facial expression, gesture, physical movement – even if it has absolutely nothing to do with you – but that is reminiscent of that facial expression in your brain’s catalog of threats. Your internal survival response system goes into high alert – even if you’re not really in danger. A relay message is immediately sent to your hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis – or the stress axis.
When this gets kicked in, you start to pump out chemicals and hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol that lead to physiological, emotional, and mental reactions that allow you to combat the danger. Your breathing changes, you become hyper-vigilant – super-aware of everything going on in your environment. You go into what we commonly call ‘fight or flight’ mode. It’s a lot like the feeling you get if you've watched a scary movie and it's really quiet in your house and you're in the height of that moment in a scary movie and all of a sudden you hear a thud or something dropping or clinking in your house, and you go into super high alert. Or the feeling we all know of being on a dark street, heading to our car alone, and we hear footsteps, or we're in a parking garage at night. It's that feeling.
How Anxiety Takes Hold: What's Wired Together, Fires Together
So why do some of us get wired to associate good things with bad things happening? In neurobiology there’s an expression – “What’s wired together gets fired together.” For many of us, grief, loss, fear, intense anxiety, insecurity, instability, or other painful or vulnerable feelings at some time got mixed up with happy, good, or positive experiences, or moments of reveling in success – all of which were cross-catalogued together in your survival memory bank. Positive experiences and feelings can become locked in or bound to a sense of dread over something bad happening.
Do you have happiness anxiety? Success fear? A lot of women do and it can keep you from fully enjoying your life and taking important chances on your success. Learn about this pattern and and how to rewire your brain in 4 easy steps.
This particular type of anxiety is a really common experience for women who have had a critical parent. You come from school with a 92 on your math final, and your parent says, “Why didn't you get a hundred?” You win 3rd place in the state tennis tournament, and your parent expresses disappointment that you didn't make it to nationals. This is also common in women who have had a dysfunctional family or mentally unwell relative who always turned a good experience into a nightmare – your 12th birthday was a great day until your mom and dad had the fight of the century and told you they were getting divorced, and that's now locked into the birthday memory for you, the parent who didn't show up or showed up inebriated. Or the holiday event where something more serious happened – the uncle that everyone knows shouldn't be around the young girls in the family, who corners you and makes you feel uncomfortable, threatened, or worse. Or the happy event at which news arrived that there had been an accident or family tragedy. At some point, you might even being to dread happiness or success – because subconsciously, it's bound up with some form or misery – or a very serious danger to your safety.
Your Brain's “Warning System”
In her beautiful attempt to keep you safe, your brain sets up a warning system and not only catalogs all of this but goes a step further and connects the categories: happy and “bad” events get wired together in an associated neural firing pattern.
It didn't take long for me to understand why I was always waiting for the other shoe to drop. My parents divorced when I was four, and it wasn't pretty – culminating in my uncle putting my dad in the hospital. I saw the whole thing. My mom picked up all the pieces, and raised me and my baby brother on her own. On occasion, I'd have a weekend visit with my dad – and his new wife (she had been part of the whole divorce equation). She was young, fun, pretty, a model and an artist – and we had fun together. When I'd arrive back home on Sunday evenings, my mom would ask if I had a good time, and I'd quickly rattle off all the things we'd done. But wow – understandably – this pushed my mom's buttons and I quickly learned having fun brought serious disapproval. So I began to say what a horrible time I had whenever I returned from my dad's (which was rare anyway), but I extended this to any social event because I started to feel guilty that I was having fun when my mom wasn't. I learned early on I paid an emotion price for pleasure and actually began to have anxiety when anything felt too good, easy, or enjoyable.
We’re not irrational, neurotic, or negative thinkers for having these associated patterns – it’s how our survival wiring works to keep us safe. Many of us, without even realizing it, are subtly living with this stress all the time because of past trauma triggered us to get mildly stuck in survival mode. When we’re otherwise overwhelmed, tired, or stressed, this survival pattern gets easily activated or stuck in the on position, or is triggered too easily. And when we have kids, for example, our sense of vulnerability is automatically increased, so that can exacerbate this pattern as it did for me and does for so many women.
In order to get out of it, and stop it from firing over and over each time we’re in a similar situation, we have to consciously do some thought re-patterning.
Overcoming Anxiety With Self-Care: How To Rewire to Thrive
A beautiful and amazing thing about our brains – and our lives – is that we not only have this deep drive to survive, but the ability to change, and not to just survive, but thrive. It’s what drives us to want wholeness, happiness, and healing. The ability to change our brains, and with it our thoughts, emotional responses, and as a result the choices we feel confident making and thus ultimately how we live, is called neuroplasticity. It means that your neural hard-wiring can actually be reshaped and reconnected. Because the emotional responses are tied to the biochemical reactions once our brains get activated, disrupting the thought patterns will naturally begin to shift the physical and emotional aspects of the reaction – for example, the anxiety you experience. Our brain is working on the basis of millions of fast-firing, electrical impulses and chemical exchanges that are happening a zillion times in milliseconds in our brain. What's really beautiful is that, unlike electrical and telephone wires which are literally fixed into their route, the electrical pathways in our brains can be rerouted.
Here are the four steps that take less than five minutes, but that can gradually but certainly shift your brain into creating new and healthy patterns that don’t prevent you from going into survival response mode when you actually need to and will allow you to begin to welcome the wonderful back into your life, without fear of a payback. Think of these four steps as a form of self-care—because they are!
Step 1: Name the Thoughts and Feelings
The first and most important key in making the shift out of the pattern that is binding your happiness to pain is to recognize the feelings of being in survival mode – they are feelings of fear, overwhelm, and anxiety. You may notice that your breathing is shallow or restricted, your back, neck, or shoulders feel tight, you feel tension in your stomach or abdomen, or you develop physical symptoms – like a headache, dizziness, or nausea. When you become conscious of the actual feelings that you’re having in your body, and the fearful thoughts that accompany these feelings, you can give a name to it – Survival Mode. Or, if you will, anxiety.
Step 2: Breathe
When you're in survival mode, a part of your nervous system, called your sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is activated and creates the very specific feelings and thoughts associated with the fight, flight, or freeze response – you're usually breathing shallowly, sometimes you're even holding your breath because you're listening for sounds and you're breathing a lot faster, and that keeps you in sympathetic overdrive which generates the same feelings associated with anxiety. The antidote that brings yourself more back into a deeper place in yourself that's calm, relaxed and feels safe, is deep breathing.
All you have to do is inhale to the count of four and exhale to the count of six to shift you into what's called parasympathetic mode, the antidote to the ‘fight or flight’ mode. I personally like to accompany the inhalation with the thought that “I am” and the exhalation with “At Peace” so it looks like this: Inhale to a count of four saying to yourself “I am,” and exhale to the count of six saying to yourself, “At peace.” Repeat four or more times.
Sending a different word form to your brain also helps to rewire the whole trigger response all the way from that external surveillance system all the way down to your adrenals and is really powerful. You can do that anytime – in a conversation with someone that's getting heated and you don't want to go down a fight road, which is a great thing at holiday time if you have stress with your family. Just do that quickie. You can do it without anybody knowing you're doing it. Just in-breath, out-breath, and in your mind you're saying, “I am at peace.”
Step 3: De-escalate with Perspective
Now that you're calmer, take a step back and remember – fears and feelings don’t actually mean anything horrible is about to happen; the worries aren’t prophetic. They are just echoes of fear and loss from the past, from things that may have happened that you don’t even remember, that got imprinted – but aren’t happening to you now. They're just overlaying themselves in your current context. Rather than letting that emotion or that thought run away like a chariot of horses without a rider, recognize these are just thoughts and these are just emotions, but they're not true. Right now in this minute you're not in danger. Disrupt the pattern by of saying to yourself, “This is a thought. This is an emotion. This is not a reality right now.”
Step 4: Thank the Fear, Yes, I know that's Weird – But Try It
Here’s the surprising step you need to create an actual cognitive disruption that breaks the grip of your thoughts and emotions and transforms them from fear to love – the big game changer here. Thank the fear and release it by intentionally giving it permission to leave. Every time the anxieties or fears bubble up, literally take a few second to say: “Thank you, thoughts. Thank you, emotions, Thank you fear. At some point in my life, you protected me. You kept me safe, but I am safe now, and I don't need you anymore, so you can go.” This is an act of radical self-love for those patterns that may have literally saved your life or sanity at some point in your past. Just doing that every time you catch yourself in that anxiety mode can start to shape your new pathway. Remember, what's wired together fires together – healthy patterns, too.
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Getting Over Anxiety: Blaze a New Trail for Yourself
Imagine you're walking on a well-worn trail. It's really easy to walk on a path you’ve walked down a million times before. Your feet just know the way. You don't have to have a machete to cut through brambles and branches. You don't have to clear out underbrush. The emotional and thought patterns that you habitually go down are similar to that well-worn path. It's really easy to go down that path – you’ve been walking on it for much of your life. Your brain and your emotions will go down that path without any effort, even if you don’t love the scenery.
If you practice this four-step sequence, before long, even within a few short months or less, you can literally rewire your brain. Over time your brain will re-catalogue itself so that the positive and negative experiences can have their own pathways. Further, it will become becomes second nature to recognize the difference between old stories and reactions, and the now. Due to a phenomenon called neuroplasticity, you really can change your brain's patterns with a little conscious effort and self-care.
Blazing a new trail takes some work and persistence. Sometimes it takes a machete to clear a new path! But over time, as you choose to walk it instead of the path of habit, it becomes the new well-worn path that's easy to travel down.
If You Have Anxiety, Life Can Be Different
I really want to reinforce that you can have wonderful things in your life happen without anything horrible happening. About eight years ago now, I really got it. For me, I suddenly became aware of the discrepancy in my life between the thoughts and the emotions that every time something good was about to happen, something bad happened. I actually took inventory of my adult life and said, “Wow, this good thing happened and nothing bad happened, and that good thing happened and nothing bad happened, and that good thing happened and nothing bad happened.” Even for you, if something good happened and then something bad did happen, there is no evidence that is going to happen again and again and again.
When I actually looked at the evidence of my life, and when I look at the evidence of most of our lives, so many wonderful and good things happen to us without something bad happening. I now know that good things don't always get followed by bad things. In fact, most of the time they don't. Also, the good thing isn't going to stop the bad thing from happening, so how do I really want to live my life? In constant worry? Playing small? Not celebrating the wins?
Allow yourself to disentangle the good experiences from the fear. Create a new path of possibility using breathing and, if you want to go further, use journaling or working with someone to help you understand where your patterns come from.
You have an incredible new path ahead of you. One that allows wonderful things to happen in your life, and I want to honor that and thank you for being here today, and honor that you are ready, and that you're at the head of that new path and ready to do the work that it takes to reflect, to shift, and to go onto the rest of your life knowing that the universe has your back. Know that you deserve wonderful things to happen, and knowing that wonderful things can happen, and nothing has to happen with it except the wonderful thing.
Are you ready get out of survival mode and into the happiness you deserve? That's exactly what I teach you how to do in my book The Adrenal Thyroid Revolution. It's also the focus of my special online course that complements the book, Fear to Freedom, Perfectionism to Peace, which is yours FREE with your purchase of a copy of the book. Learn how to get the course right here.