Many years ago, I worked with a client who was afraid of tea. Now this might sound strange to you at first, but once you understand how anxiety functions, you will notice that you can replace the word tea, for anything that triggers anxiety in your life.
My client developed this fear suddenly and quickly. Not only was he unable to drink tea, but he couldn’t even stand to be in the same room as it. The mere thought of it gave him terrible anxiety. He asked me to help him reduce his fear of tea, so that he could go back to enjoying his life – and to drinking tea.
What had happened was this. Suddenly and unexpectedly, Sam experienced a panic attack while drinking a cup of tea. It seemed to come out of nowhere, and his mind immediately looked to the environment for the cause of this awful feeling. Unable to find an obvious cause, he concluded that it must have been the cup of tea. Perhaps the caffeine had caused a reaction?
He felt a bit puzzled and decided to avoid tea for a while, but soon had to visit the supermarket. As he approached the tea and coffee aisle, he began to feel anxious. It must be the tea dust, he thought, or something in the atmosphere of the tea aisle? Hastily retreating, he decided that he really must be allergic to some substance related to tea, and that he would avoid this aisle on future visits to the supermarket. He still felt anxious though, so he decided to leave the supermarket for another day.
Back home without any shopping, he realised that he would need to go back to the supermarket the next day. As he thought about how he would avoid the tea aisle, the anxious feeling began to creep back. Now, even the thought of tea was causing him to panic. He added “thinking about tea” to his list of things to avoid.
If you have experienced anxiety, you will know that trying not to think about something does not make it go away. Quite the opposite. Fear of tea was causing Sam such despair that even though he felt embarrassed and bewildered, he visited his doctor in the hope of finding something to relieve his feelings. His doctor referred him to me. There, our investigation began.
We soon uncovered that there was more to the story. Sam had been recently divorced, was afraid of losing his job, and did not know if he would be able to pay his rent now that he was alone. It had been such a stressful period in his life that he hadn’t realised just how much time he was spending worrying about what could happen to him if it all went wrong. It turned out that, while drinking the original cup of tea, he had been vividly imagining scenarios of everything in his life falling apart.
To understand what was happening to Sam, we must first understand that anxiety is a physiological survival response. Designed to protect us from threats, the Fight, Flight or Freeze Response (which is what you are experiencing when you feel anxious) puts you in the optimum physical and psychological condition in which to escape a danger. Sam’s mind thought that he was under threat, and did what it is designed to do to protect him. It activated the survival response.
Because it is so integral to survival, anxiety overrides every other emotion. At its height, it is powerful, intense, and extremely uncomfortable – because it needs to be to keep us safe. Think about it like physical pain – it must feel bad so that we won’t do something that will harm us, like touching a fire. If anxiety did not feel unpleasant, we might simply ignore it, and then it would not be doing its job.
Why then, is anxiety so common even in the absence of real threat? The answer is a physiological one. While the frontal cortex (the “rational” part of the human brain) knows the difference between real and imaginary, the more primal part of the brain does not. It reacts to our fearful thoughts as if they were real threats, and gives us the feelings to match. You can see this in the Sam’s experience. The physical presence of tea was not needed; the thought alone produced the same emotional response.
Tea was not the real problem here. But an immediate or environmental danger is easier to comprehend than an abstract thought. Sam, so accustomed to constant low-level worry, hadn’t connected the feeling of panic to the troubled thoughts in his head. Instead, his primal brain, forever on the lookout for threats and dangers in the environment, identified the cup of tea as the cause. Later, in the supermarket, his mind alerted him to the presence of “danger” by providing him with a feeling of panic – which served only to reinforce the paired association between tea (stimulus) and anxiety (response). Of course, this all took place without much conscious awareness, as does much of what goes on in our minds. The trouble is, that the conditioning that takes place around cause and effect, or stimulus and response, is not always clear.
This story illustrates how our minds can trap us in a loop. What Sam was truly afraid of was not tea (the mind and brain in a search for cause attributed it to the external stimulus of tea) but the original stimulus/cause was initially the worrisome thoughts. Although the original cause of the activation of the anxiety response was the thoughts, and tea was held responsible, the subsequent cause wasn’t the original thoughts or the tea. The subsequent anxiety responses were created by the fear of the anxiety response itself. The panic attack – caused not by the cup of tea, but by his thoughts – was so awful, that he was afraid to feel it again. But fear of being anxious only begets more anxiety. He became stuck in a loop.
During our sessions, Sam and I used the Out of the Loop process to help him unpair the association between tea and anxiety. More importantly, we worked on unpairing his thoughts from his anxiety. Once he realised that his brain would do exactly what was asked of it, he was able to break the loop, and life began to improve pretty quickly for him. He is very happy for me to tell you his story and has himself referred to it in a public domain, because he hopes that it might help others with similar experiences.
Suffering from anxiety did not mean that Sam’s mind was broken. It was simply doing its job of looking after him but due to the way we naturally respond to experiences he became trapped in an anxious loop. This survival mechanism is within all of us. If you are stuck in an anxious loop yourself, it is absolutely possible for you to learn to intercept it and restore your mind to a state of calm. Out of the Loop will teach you how.