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Coping With Anxiety Through Inaction
By Philip Monte Verde, LMSW

In the American Southwest, there’s a little guy called the trapdoor spider. It sits all day in the small tunnel it dug into the earth with specially adapted teeth. It chose this space, seeing it as best suited for its purposes and freely available. It did the work of digging, closed its silk-hinged trap door, and now it waits.

Time passes, its prey creeps across its doorstep, and it strikes. It’s quick, and to our eyes violent, but also natural. It’s smooth. It’s the way of the world.

The tree in the woods did not select its spot. But it too works with the parts it has evolved on the ground that it found available. Time passes, and the storm winds rise up. The many branches of the tree bend and give way; the wind moves on. Maybe it appears violent to our eyes, but it is also natural, smooth, and the way of the world.

Some trapdoor spiders may starve, and some mighty trees may fall. But the tree does not attack the wind, and the trapdoor spider does not run around the ground in a panic. They do not force these actions because they know intuitively they won’t work. They do not force these actions because they lack anxiety.

Anxiety can be a beautiful thing. In large part because of anxiety, we do not have to live with our bodies or roots hiding in the ground. We can venture out across the earth safe in the knowledge that, to a strong degree, we can react to trouble and threats. Our blessing is that our reaction switch is always set to “on.” Our curse is that we can never turn it off.

Reaction will always be our default. Reaction is controlled by our amygdala, the almond-shaped bit of brain that sits near where the brain connects to the rest of the body.

When we feel, see, smell, or taste things, that information passes through our amygdala first before moving on to the rest of our brain. If we see a bear’s paw swinging at us with claws out, our amygdala will direct the body to dodge it before we even recognize with the rest of our minds that it is a bear’s paw.

The amygdala is so wonderful when it is functioning properly. When we have suffered a trauma, have suppressed a lot of emotion, or are under considerable stress, the amygdala can be like a malfunctioning fire alarm. It will scream out to us, “Something is wrong! We need to take action now!” Action, action, all the time. This is anxiety.

The amygdala reacts. But it knows its abilities are limited, and that it has an ally in our skull in our higher brain. The prefrontal cortex. The place where we do our higher thinking. This is the part you are using right now to comprehend and consider these words.

The amygdala reacts and asks our higher brain to take action. It sends up stress signals like the Bat Signal. It makes us physically uncomfortable so we will act. When we act, we feel comfortable again for a while. If there are no actual threats that can be addressed, we may turn to our default coping strategies. We may rearrange the furniture, seek out some reassurance, or throw a tantrum.

Afterwards we feel better.

Unfortunately, in searching for short-term relief, we often do long-term damage. Our actions, when there was no real immediate threat, fed back to the amygdala the message that it was right to get all worked up and send out those stress hormones. The amygdala then thinks it should see more things as threats and make us even more anxious next time.

The solution then is the most counterintuitive thing imaginable in the moment. Unless the bear’s paw, the tornado, or the city bus truly is barreling toward us, the best thing we can do is take inaction. It is to sit there with the pain, watch it swell up like a wave in our mind and body, reach its crest, and then recede. Because it will recede. It will not drown you.

As the stress hormones taper off, you will find that you survived, that your life was never actually at risk.

After the initial reaction of our amygdala, our actions are within the control of the higher mind. When we ride the wave of anxious discomfort to its conclusion, we are then able to respond rather than react to what is going on.

With practice this becomes easier, and we grow more skilled at working with our anxiety. Eventually we can even learn to appreciate our amygdalas, which do so much good for us. We can learn to love them because they are part of the beautiful experience of being alive.

We can learn when we need to respond. Or, like the patient trapdoor spider or the tree on a peaceful day, we may find that no action is required at all but to be.

— Philip Monte Verde, LMSW, is a therapist and proud social worker in Rochester, New York. He specializes in helping clients remove blocks and understand and accept themselves for who they are.