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Anxiety is Only Trying to Help

(Spoiler alert: Inside Out 2)

“I wish I could just stop worrying!” is a common statement from older teen and adult clients. Once clients develop the insight and awareness of their worry, they wish that the persistent and pervasive feelings and thoughts of worry would simply cease to exist. For children, worry is often expressed more as physiological symptoms like tummy aches and headaches, or behaviorally such as avoidance, resistance, crying, or outbursts. 

In simple neuroscience terms, all humans have a basic “reptilian brain” which houses our survival instinct. This part of our brain keeps us out of danger, regulates breathing and temperature, and is responsible for our “fight, flight, or freeze” response. For most of us, most of the time, we are safe and do not need to be concerned about survival. Anxiety is an emotion that can originate from the survival instinct, acting as an over-reactive protective mechanism attempting to keep us safe. I often remind my clients that anxiety LOVES control and will shift our behaviors and actions to avoid discomfort.

Over time, it’s common for anxious thoughts to become more and more prevalent and automatic (“what fires together, wires together”). Initially, anxiety can be helpful in keeping us safe. However, when it takes over, it can be problematic. , Despite its positive intentions, anxiety often takes the driver's seat, and the logical part of our brain (prefrontal cortex) takes a back seat.

In Inside Out 2, the emotion of Anxiety arrives on the scene and quickly becomes the main character. In the movie, Anxiety takes control of the console and kicks out the other original emotions. It believes that taking over can help protect the main character, Riley, from potential future life difficulties or social pitfalls. 

Anxiety recruits the “imagination” to brainstorm different potential scenarios in an effort to predict the best possible outcome for Riley. In real life, when we visualize every scenario that could potentially happen, we often believe that we can avoid the bad scenarios, or that they won’t happen to us. This is extremely common in an anxious brain. Anxiety does its best to predict the future and avoid potential pain and discomfort. The character of Joy works hard to stop this from happening and let the imagination return to its original purpose of fun and creativity. 

Riley’s Anxiety character makes all the decisions and changes the character’s natural behavior to coincide with what Anxiety thinks will benefit her the most in the future. This, of course, goes awry and Riley’s behavior becomes problematic and impulsive. At this point, Inside Out 2 depicts an amazing visualization of what can happen when someone enters“Freeze” mode or has a panic attack. It can feel like the brain goes offline and we completely lose control of what is happening., which is a terrifying sensation for people.

What we can learn about managing our anxiety: 

Anxiety can become persistent, pervasive, and punitive: While searching in the brain for Riley’s older personality traits, the original emotions (Anger, Sadness, Fear, and Disgust) become irritated with Joy and they all start to express hopelessness, saying things like,  “I don't know how to stop Anxiety. Maybe we can't. Maybe this is what happens when you grow up. You feel less joy.” In reality, anxiety can interfere with our ability to experience joy. 

Anxiety often leads to poor decisions: It’s important to recognize when we are making decisions from a place of worry, concern, or potential avoidance of discomfort. When making decisions, ask yourself questions like: What do I truly need? What do I want? What is my end goal? What will serve me most in the future?

Anxiety can be helpful in smaller doses: Our brain remembers past situations when things went wrong and then recalls those situations when we are experiencing similar conditions in the future to keep us safe. When we check in with what we are truly concerned about, we can replicate the positive outcomes that originally kept us safe. 

You can take control of your anxiety: With reframing, breathing and mindfulness, processing, and practice in and out of therapy sessions, you can learn to control your anxiety. You can also channel its benefits while recognizing the potential pitfalls to move in a positive direction. 

In the end, as both Inside Out movies portray, every emotion has a purpose. Luckily, we have the power to choose how to respond to our emotions. They are not the only ones “controlling the console,” and it’s up to us to take control and act in the way that works best for us. 

“Joy, you've made a lot of mistakes, A lot... and you're going to make a lot more in the future. But if you let that stop you now, we might as well lie down and give up.” – Anger, Inside Out 2


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